What would you do if you knew an asteroid was going to crash into the Earth in six months time?
Lie, spin, profiteer, bicker, undermine the science, ignore the warnings and do nothing useful whatsoever according to Adam McKay’s bleak apocalyptic satire Don’t Look Up. In it Meryl Streep’s corrupt female Trump-alike president, flanked by her sniveling, useless Chief-of-staff son (Jonah Hill) are presented with so many end-of-the-world scenarios from climate change to pollution, terrorism to nuclear threat that it’s all reduced to optics and winning the midterms.
Do something! Do anything! McKay’s film screams. Or we might just fuck everything up.
That scream comes from the mouth of Jennifer’s Lawrence’s PhD student Kate Dibiasky, who discovers a comet around 9km wide which is on a collision course with Earth. This is a ‘planet killer’ and she and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are certain this means the end of the world unless some serious action is taken. “We’re all going to fucking die!” she yells on a popular breakfast TV show hosted by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett’s slick, chirpy anchors. Instead of it being a call to action, she’s immediately branded as crazy and is turned into a meme, while DiCaprio becomes the acceptable – or indeed fanciable – face of science.
There are many themes at play, but ‘power corrupts’ is certainly in the mix as Kate is quickly written out of the picture despite the comet being named after her, while the initially decent Randall starts to believe his own bullshit.
There’s enough here – in terms of threads and themes but also star power – for several movies so to suggest Don’t Look Up takes a ‘belt and braces’ approach is a massive understatement. Utilising some of the best on screen talent around, McKay delves into multiple elements of American society and how each reacts to this news. News, which is of course misreported and misrepresented by the press, then twisted by various different factions to suit their own ends. In almost every instance, McKay’s conclusion seems to be that people are either idiots or arseholes, with very few exceptions. It’s a pretty damning outlook so despite the Christmas Eve release date and the appeal of the cast list, it’s hardly family fun. Indeed the pessimistic, blunt instrument nature of this movie could be seriously off putting for some.
However, you can’t fault McKay’s ability to weave together an on-the-nose, state-of-the-nation story that speaks very directly to everything that’s happening now. Even the title of the film plays out as a dig at anti-vaxxers – when the comet becomes visible to the naked eye Kate calls for people to ‘Just Look Up’ while comet deniers, in their ardent desire to ignore the science, opt for the opposite message.
So it’s depressing. But it is also funny. Kate, with Rob Morgan’s head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (a real thing), becomes obsessed with a military man who charges them for free snacks in The Whitehouse. There’s a brilliant gag at the end which is set up halfway through the movie. And Streep hasn’t been as decadently awful since The Devil Wears Prada.
Meanwhile Blanchett, sporting bright white veneers is wonderful and maddening as one half of the talk show duo who wield a ridiculous amount of power and take absolutely no responsibility. Mark Rylance (also in veneers) is chilling as the reclusive tech billionaire whose utter hubris could cost the lives of billions. Look out, too, for a winning turn from Ariana Grande whose pop starlet’s on-again-off-again relationship with DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi) is far bigger news than the actual end of days. They’re fun, and the song Mescudi and Grande collaborated on for the film is a genuine banger. Though McKay is essentially suggesting that the majority of the population are celebrity-obsessed airheads. But still…
It’s not all doom and gloom. Hope lies in the fringes, as embodied by Timothee Chalamet’s disaffected youth who basically believes in nothing and trusts no one and so finds himself inspired by Lawrence’s scream of fear and rage (he’s not about to change the world, he just has her picture on his skateboard). Even amongst this classy lot, Lawrence steals the show. Like with her Oscar winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook, it’s the absolute sincerity she brings to Kate which stops the movie from descending into farce. Kate is a real person, who understands what is going to happen and is really, genuinely scared. And in case we weren’t comprehending the enormity of the situation, cutaway scenes from around the world remind us of the beauty of nature and other cultures, all of which we are about to destroy.
There can be a smugness and a lack of nuance to McKay’s work (Vice, we’re looking at you), but in Don’t Look Up’s defense, this is an incredibly contemporary film which clearly takes the standpoint that the time for nuance has passed. It’s a picture of an America which would literally destroy the entire planet because of individual selfishness. It might not be a message everyone wants to hear, but it’s the message McKay wants to tell and there’s something rather powerful and even noble about the sense of kinetic fury constantly in the background here.
So Don’t Look Up might not be for everyone, but it’s more than just another Netflix film. Think of it like a massive Hollywood Christmas special where the top talent comes together to scream, “We’re all going to fucking die” at the top of their lungs. Amen to that.
Don’t Look Up is available to stream now on Netflix.