Don’t Look Up (2021)
Written by Adam McKay and David Sirota
Directed by Adam McKay
The planet Earth is fucked. Our leaders have clearly decided they will let this climate change thing play itself (while ensuring they have bunkers to survive in), with assurances all of us slaving plebs will be “just fine.” How can you not be enraged about this? But at the same time, who has the time to spend their days worrying over a cataclysmic event so cosmically significant that we have no way as individuals to effect change? Adam McKay’s latest film isn’t taking any chances and is as blunt as possible about the absurdity of modern life in the face of impending existential and literal extinction. It’s no surprise that a movie as explicit as Don’t Look Up has carved a chasm through discourse online (such a rare occurrence, right?). This is a movie where your reaction to it says more about you as a person than the quality of the film.
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a graduate astronomy student and discovers a comet hurtling towards the Earth one night while scanning the skies. She informs her professor, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo Dicaprio), and they calculate that it will strike the planet in a little over six months. Being responsible citizens, they contact the Pentagon and are sent to brief President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of State/son Jason (Jonah Hill) on the matter. The information is not received with the seriousness they expected, so the duo takes to the airwaves to spread the message. This doesn’t go as planned either, and they find their information diluted under the need to “keep things light.” Eventually, it appears the US government is prepared to send a barrage of nukes into space to destroy the comet but are halted at the last minute. Tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) has learned valuable minerals are littered throughout the object. So the government decides to let the comet keep on its course.
This is an incredibly blunt satirical comedy. Its metaphors are self-explanatory ones, and that may seem like sloppy writing, but I argue that for the current state of American thinking, you cannot be subtle when it comes to matters of planetary survival. I’m an American, and I fully admit the country is overflowing with people either willfully putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, yelling, “Lalalala, I can’t hear you.” Others doping themselves into mental oblivion with as many consumer distractions as they can afford or at least go into massive debt. The movie’s message is not a comfortable one to tackle, and it makes sense that viewers would have a visceral reaction after seeing it. If your response is to say McKay is a lousy director because there were characters you found unlikable in the movie or that it was too on the nose (both recurring arguments I have seen online from both professional critics and ‘regular people’), then you are stubbornly refusing to engage with the film.
Because movies in the United States are absolutely dominated by nine-figure budgets and a handful of familiar faces, any piece of film intending to address the pending climate collapse cannot be sly or overly clever. This is a picture that looks like a Marvel movie with one of the darkest endings you’ll see this year. McKay and co-writer Sirota have zero interest in coddling viewers and are simply reflecting back on the state of political leadership and media in the States as they stand today. Both institutions are utterly incapable of addressing the greatest crises of the moment. You could substitute climate change for COVID-19 or poverty or health care, and this movie is entirely applicable.
Funnily enough, the angriest reactions I see are not from Trump-ian proto-fascists; they are too dense to really react to a movie like this. Instead, it’s the institution-loving self-important neoliberals that are apoplectic over how thoroughly the picture skewers their sacred cows. The Conservatives have already embraced the idea of oblivion and are goose-stepping like good little psychopaths into the void of the future. The technocrats and Democrats are still putting on kabuki theater that through “clear-headed private sector approaches,” we can solve all the world’s ills. Neoliberalism likes to tout the “end of history,” and a film like Don’t Look Up points out how a context-less existence, removing culture from the examination of history’s follies, is a prescription for complete obliteration.
There are many fantastic performances here, DiCaprio is showing a lot of range, and Streep & Hill are a comedic duo I’d love to see more of. My favorites, however, are Jennifer Lawrence and Mark Rylance, two actors I wouldn’t say I am usually a fan of. Lawrence’s Kate is a person so thoroughly gaslit from scene one that you can’t help but empathize with her. As someone paying attention to the data during COVID-19, I’ve come to know a fraction of the type of infuriating gaslighting marginalized groups experience every day of their lives. When you know the foundational reality of the situation and are just told every step of the way you are wrong, ignored, and mocked, it will test the tension of your sanity. Because Kate refuses to smile and play the media game, she’s maligned and mocked online by both your average social media poster and people in positions of power.
Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell is a portrayal of Silicon Valley sociopaths I adore seeing on screen. At some point, he has extracted any ounce of love or joy he might feel towards another human. He still plays as someone who experiences the normal range of human emotions but does so half-heartedly. The President defers to him as he is at the Platinum+ level of donors from the campaign. Every piece of technology Isherwell creates and markets is designed for him if it happens to benefit or harm another person that is incidental to his pleasure and comfort. As someone who cannot stand Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, or name any person who claims “science and tech” will save us without regard to labor and the human cost, finally seeing someone of their ilk shown warts and all is beautiful.
I don’t think Don’t Look Up is a perfect movie; it’s far from my favorite satire, but I applaud McKay and Sirota for not pulling punches. They have made a movie with the blunt comedic force of Anchorman or Step-Brothers but actually about something vitally important to the continuation of life on Earth. We’ve come to the point where a gentle hand or positively coercive messaging on climate just isn’t going to work. The clock has countdown too far, and things have become too desperate to ask nicely. The picture draws a clear line in the sand that there is so much beauty on the planet worth saving, and if it does get extinguished, then that fault falls clearly on the dominant culture and institutions in places like the United States.