‘Don’t Look Up’: almost gets there, doesn’t, and yet an important movie

Director Adam McKay, co-writing with David Sirota, delivers a few punches that actually land in his prestige-cast science satire, Don’t Look Up. Comparisons with his nifty 2015 financial thriller The Big Short may be an exercise in unfairness—every creative work needs to be looked at in its stand-alone entirety, no?—but the director may have subliminally invoked the diff in using credit fonts that grab you as attractive candy stalls with colorful display might, at a local fair. And in that comparison chart, his latest outing falls short, not bigly (presidential term intended), but in a way that leaves behind a trace of what could be classified as a disappointment. 

And yet, this is an important movie, especially in these times where a raging pandemic battles stupidity, science battles naysayers, and truth battles social media theories. (The score seems to be keeling over toward the sides that are shooing the truth away.) When Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, wonderfully snappy and edgy), a Ph.D. student in astronomy from the Michigan State University, discovers a new comet while working with the Subaru telescope, the joyous whoop is led by her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who immediately stutters into shock—as it turns out, that’s the motif of DiCaprio’s terrific performance, Xanax-led timid confidence that later turns into self-serving invidiousness—when his calculations show that the mass, matching Mt. Everest’s dimensions, is hurtling towards Earth with a velocity that’ll take six months to crash into and destroy life on it. Joined by the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan, superbly wry and dry), they’re whisked off by government agents to debrief POTUS, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep, marvelously taking off on the U.S. president she openly took on in public). 

Smarting phone: Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

The scenes at the White House crackle with the battle of urgency that you and the scientists wear like a frown and the placid, and the far-removed-from-reality red tape, irony hanging in the air like the smell of a burger eaten in the Oval Office, only to be replaced by the belching of a carbonated beverage. The humor is nervous and plays well. When the meeting does eventually happen—but not before they’re conned—the scientists also have Orlean’s son—Jason (Jonah Hill, simply fantastic), the chief of staff (another Trumpian reference), he of obnoxious behavior, his education from the University of Nepotism and Boorishness—to deal with. 

The movie’s intrinsic strength derives from this tug-of-war between the imminent disaster and the lackadaisical political and media response to this apocalyptic discovery. There’s chuckles to be thrown amidst nodding in been-there-seen-that surrender: the politics of survival isn’t about saving the Earth; it’s about winning the next elections. The meteor is, of course, a metaphor for Covid. It also stands for climate change. Each one of these threats to our very existence—these wearisome days both strut hand-in-hand, gleefully—is often offset by drama and flippant reporting. As the T.V. show, The Daily Rip (McKay’s bleak humor at play, I’d like to think: the Rip an ominous acronym associated with all the death and devastation we’re seeing around us) proudly claims, they want to keep it light. The show hosts Jack Bremmer, and Brie Evantee are played with perfect nonchalance and made-up cheeriness by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett; the latter has a bigger role in Dr. Mindy’s devastation. 

Meryl Streep: in the blight house.

The director throws in the CEO of a major tech company for complete contemporary measure: Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell shifts in uneasy brilliance as a socially incompetent but dazzling mind, manipulating data and algorithms to control his company’s ever-willing customers. But what struck me hard was Isherwell’s plan to deal with the comet: it was a punch that took my breath away, for his seemingly peachy plan reminded me of how some CEOs, having invested billions of dollars in the idea, are pushing to mine the planet’s sea beds to vacuum out polymetallic nodules, created over millions of eco-enriching years, to feed the demand for clean energy: viz., batteries for laptops, phones, and E.Vs. Worryingly, the International Seabed Authority, a U.N. body, is actually considering how to permit this rampage: one more final plundering of the Earth’s resources before the oceans rise in climactic pain and anger.

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry: news is for the dumb.

That’s the contemporaneousness of Don’t Look Up that’s smart and stinging. And when director McKay inexplicably and suddenly descends from snarky, sharp observations to treacly trajectories (including Ariana Grande’s timely but ill-timed number) and stays there until the end, the movie feels like a let-down. Much like Timothée Chalamet’s puzzling role that seems to have been written to fill in a starry void and not much else. From the fun of composer Nicholas Britell taking off on Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar style during a rocket launch and politicos propping up a national hero (Ron Perlman, superb) to pin it all on to the maudlin plotting is a big comedown indeed. 

But then, as in real life, is there any clean and effective solution for the mess the movie’s cast—and we on this planet—find ourselves in? Was an end that was a cop (or should that be COP 26?) out all but inevitable? In a world where the battle for our minds is being fought—and won—not through peer-reviewed scientific papers or informed, mature, dignified debates, but through WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media elves, what hope do we have? Which is why, as you finish reading this review on your smartphone, don’t look up. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Don’t Look Up is streaming on Netflix and rated  A (Adults only) for nudity, drugs, and political language.

Don’t Look Up
Director Adam McKay Time 2h 18min
Writers Adam McKayDavid Sirota
Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande
Genres Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi