A comet is headed to Earth, and despite dire warnings from scientists, almost everyone fails to take it seriously. That’s the basic premise of Don’t Look Up, the latest film from Adam McKay which premieres on Netflix today. It balances the blunt social commentary from his most recent Oscar nominated films (The Big Short and Vice), with the comic absurdity from his early hits, like Anchorman and Talladega Nights. The result is somewhat uneven and a bit too long, but it’s also a battlecry against the anti-science, fact-phobic reality we’re living through today.
The comet is an obvious metaphor for climate change, an apocalyptic scenario we’re hurtling towards while governments drag their heels, the fossil fuel industry feigns ignorance and most people go about their lives oblivious about what’s to come. But Don’t Look Up also describes humanity’s bumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global disaster that’s led to more than five million deaths.
The film’s title is a mantra used by a conservative president (Meryl Streep) to make her red-capped supporters look down at the ground, and not at the glowing comet in the sky they can easily see in the sky. It’s hard not to be reminded of the politicization of COVID-19, which has led to people denying its existence and demonizing vaccines, all because of something they heard on Fox News or their family’s Facebook group.
After two astronomers (played by a surprisingly nebbish Leonardo DiCaprio and a spunky Jennifer Lawrence) rush to the White House with news about Earth’s impending destruction in six months, they’re forced to wait. Streep’s President Orlean is dealing with a potential scandal around a Supreme Court nominee, obviously that’s more important. By the time they lay out Earth’s impending doom, Orlean would rather wait and do nothing. “What’s this going to cost me? What’s the ask in place?” she says.
As the two scientists try to spread the word, first by leaking the doomsday scenario to the media, and then by becoming media personalities of their own, the film takes a scattershot aim at critiquing our modern society. The great Mark Rylance plays a Jobs-meets-Zuckerberg tech executive, the sort of mogul whose idea of innovation is a phone that’ll constantly monitor you to fix negative emotions. (Feeling down? Bash Life will automatically book a nearby therapy session for you.) Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry pop up as cable news hosts who can only speak to their audience with faux, upbeat banter—yes, even if that news is about humanity’s imminent destruction.
Don’t Look Up sometimes feels like it’s punching down, especially when it’s focusing on the sheer stupidity of President Orlean’s conservative followers. But the film isn’t afraid to criticize everyone, even its scientist leads. Both characters have trouble properly conveying the significance of their discovery. And when DiCaprio’s astronomer finds his media legs, he’s fully a part of the government propaganda machine.
By the time the American government finally decides to do something about the comet — only because it benefits the President, of course — it’s dressed up in patriotic showmanship, as if Michael Bay were directing George W. Bush’s tone deaf 2003 Mission Accomplished speech. I won’t spoil where the movie goes from there, but it’s clearly spoofing Bay’s Armageddon. One war hero and a big rocket is all it takes to stop a planet destroying threat, right?
Don’t Look Up isn’t a complete success — the comedy is hit or miss, and it could seriously benefit from a shorter and more focused narrative. But the final act hits with a wallop, at times reenacting scenarios I’ve seen in far too many anxiety dreams. If the world were really ending in a few months, how would you react? What do we owe each other, as a civilization? And what will it take to protect this planet in the face of profit-seeking vampires, who would gladly risk humanity for a few more resources? Adam McKay doesn’t have any answers. But his anger is something we can all understand.