A comet is heading for Earth, and despite dire warnings from scientists, almost everyone does not take it seriously. That is the basic premise of Don’t look up, the latest Adam McKay film to premiere on Netflix today. It balances the outspoken social commentary of his recent Oscar-nominated films (The Big Short and Vice) with the comical absurdity of his early hits like Anchorman and Talladega Nights. The result is a little uneven and a little too long, but it’s also a battle cry against the anti-science, fact-phobic reality we are living through today.
The comet is an obvious metaphor for climate change, an apocalyptic scenario that we are headed for as governments chase, the fossil fuel industry pretends to be ignorant, and most people are unaware of their lives about what is in store. But Don’t Look Up also describes humankind’s awkward response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global catastrophe that has resulted in more than five million deaths.
The title of the film is a mantra used by a Conservative President (Meryl Streep) to get her red hat supporters to look at the ground rather than the glowing comet in the sky that they can easily see in the sky. It’s hard not to be reminded of the politicization of COVID-19 which has led people to deny its existence and demonize vaccines, all because of something they heard on Fox News or their family’s Facebook group.
After two astronomers (played by a surprisingly nebulous Leonardo DiCaprio and a brave Jennifer Lawrence) rush to the White House with news of the impending destruction of the earth in six months, they have to wait. Streep’s President Orlean is dealing with a potential Supreme Court candidate scandal, which is obviously more important. Until they lay out the impending doom of the earth, Orlean would rather wait and do nothing. “What will it cost me? She says.
As the two scholars try to get the message across by first leaking the doomsday scenario to the media and then becoming media personalities themselves, the film aims to criticize our modern society. The great Mark Rylance plays a Jobs-meets-Zuckerberg tech manager, the kind of mogul whose idea of innovation is a phone that is constantly monitoring you to resolve negative emotions. (Feeling down? Bash Life will automatically book a therapy session nearby for you.) Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry emerge as cable news presenters who can only speak to their audience with fake, happy banter – yes, even if they are this news about humanity is about impending destruction.
“Don’t Look Up” sometimes feels like it’s pushing down, especially when it comes to the sheer stupidity of President Orlean’s conservative supporters. But the film is not afraid to criticize anyone, even leading its scientists. Both characters struggle to properly convey the meaning of their discovery. And when DiCaprio’s astronomer finds his media legs, he’s fully part of the government’s propaganda machine.
When the American government finally decides to do something about the comet – only because it benefits the president, of course – it is dressed in patriotic display, as if Michael Bay is staging George W. Bush’s deaf 2003 Mission Accomplished speech. I won’t reveal where the film is headed, but it clearly fakes Bay’s Armageddon. A war hero and a large missile are enough to stop a planet from threatening, right?
Don’t Look Up isn’t a complete hit – the comedy is hit or miss, and it could seriously benefit from a shorter, more focused narrative. But the last act strikes in one fell swoop, sometimes it reenacts scenarios that I have seen in far too many anxious dreams. If the world really did end in a few months, how would you react? What do we owe each other as a civilization? And what does it take to protect this planet in the face of profitable vampires who would like to risk humanity for a few more resources? Adam McKay has no answers. But his anger is something we can all understand.
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