Film: Don’t Look Up

Despite effective execution, there’s something unsatisfying about Don’t Look Up (2021). On reflection, I’ll attributed it to two things: one, that it delivers on its premise in such expected ways that it never achieves surprise, and two, the distancing, sad reality that its message is even necessary. Dispiriting satire ensues when bright young astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) makes a remarkable find: a massive new comet. Kate’s professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), helps chart the orbital trajectory only to reveal that the comet is on a collision course with Earth, a near-certain planet-killing event. Kate and Randall bring their find to NASA, only to find themselves spirited off to the White House by a scientist with the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). The trio meets with short-sighted populist President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) to make their case: without prompt action to divert the comet, the world is almost certainly doomed. But the President, blinded by her political agenda, dismisses the news—forcing the concerned trio to whistle-blow to the media. The only problem: most people simply don’t give a shit, amplifying the President’s cynical slogan: “Don’t Look Up.”

It’s a stylishly produced affair with a solid satiric core, and like most cautionary SF it’s really about the present. The familiar skiffy premise—a race against time to head off impending global catastrophe—is leveraged toward commentary about the warped way we communicate across political divides, and how the inability to agree on reality is pointing us down a catastrophic path. The comet, quite obviously, is a metaphor for climate change, making the primary satirical target the right wing, its blinkered distrust of expertise and wholesale rejection of reality. DiCaprio, Lawrence, and Morgan, meanwhile, stand in for the concerned, neurotic left—which doesn’t escape criticism, as its representatives are depicted as ineffectually scrambling to raise the alarm. It’s a hopeless battle, in light of a reality-melting media landscape that can’t manage to sell the dire, unsexy content of the message. All three leads are great, with DiCaprio perhaps standing out as the anxiety-prone man of science whose unlikely propulsion into the spotlight turns him into a media darling, even as Kate—who actually discovered the comet—becomes a focal point for nasty memes and sexist trolls. (Doesn’t this all ring sadly true?) The meatier comedic roles, meanwhile, fall to the forces they’re up against, including Streep as a strutting, infuriating mix of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as vapid morning TV show hosts who can’t quite take the dire news seriously, and Jonah Hill (especially hilarious) as the President’s son/chief of staff, a toxic dudebro blind to his nepotistic privilege. There’s also a character who brilliantly illustrates the complicity of the tech giants in our troubles; Mark Rylance delivers an effectively out-of-touch, Mark Zuckerbergian billionaire tech savant so thoroughly bloated from drinking his own Kool-Aid that he exacerbates the crisis, throwing the whole weight of his telecom empire behind it.

In light of all these strengths, what’s to dislike? Well, not much, except perhaps that in the context of late 2021, Don’t Look Up is like preaching to the choir and beating a dead horse simultaneously. Satire thrives on insight, and Don’t Look Up doesn’t have anything all that original to say about its targets; it isn’t really telling the left anything it doesn’t already know, nor is it saying anything the right is capable of hearing. It feels like shouting into the wind, then, and while words are heartfelt—the script has moments of grace and truth mixed in with its jaded obscurity—I’m not sure the overall message is being articulated in a manner that’s going to popularize its noble intent. Even people inclined to agree with it may walk away with an “I can’t even” reaction, despite the fact that it squarely hits all its targets. Even to me, this feels like a hell of a lot of criticism for a generally well-crafted film that squarely accomplishes its mission. So yeah, mileage may vary. But for me, there’s too much flailing at the wind in daily life right now, and the way Don’t Look Up encapsulates that attitude, while effective, somehow doesn’t resonate.

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