As recently as three years ago, if you had told me that filmmaker Adam McKay (The Big Short) was going to make a climate change satire about the world issuing a collective shrug in the face of an imminent, planet-killing comet, I might’ve said, “Too far-fetched.” After all, climate change is an ongoing, diffuse disaster, not an acute one that threatens everyone instantly. But then COVID happened. Anytime there’s a pandemic that has you rethinking the phrase, “Avoid it like the plague,” you know that the world has gone cuckoo bananas.
So Don’t Look Up ends up being both a climate change metaphor AND a COVID metaphor. It’s a pretty good joke, too. The “Don’t look up” message actually comes from the politicians and one-percenters who want people continuing their lives as mindless consumers, not contemplating the literal end of the earth. But it’s one joke, told over and over and over again. It would’ve made an excellent SNL skit.
So, because he’s basically got this one joke to tell, McKay gins up the works. Don’t Look Up is also about our celebrity-obsessed culture and, essentially, how malleable and vapid people are, how we’re all so easily distracted and polarized, how disengaged we are in our own lives. Pretty much everyone is an asshole, a sucker, or a shmuck, with the exception of the astronomy student played by Jennifer Lawrence (and, to a lesser extent, a skate rat character played by Timothée Chalamet). It prompts the question: If people are so stupid and corrupt, why should we care about their fate? Then, in the height of cynicism, after poking us in the ribs for nearly two and a half hours over what morons we all are, McKay has the audacity to go a little sentimental about humankind at the film’s end. (You don’t get to have it both ways, buster.) The film’s heavy-handedness and misanthropy also makes it somewhat dramatically inert. It’s hard to get invested in characters that are mostly caricatures.
It’s Lawrence’s Kate who discovers the comet, then passes along the news to her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, who is at first jazzed about the discovery and then increasingly panicky as he realizes what it means. The two of them breathlessly report the news to a skeptical NASA and, after some delay, they get to make their pitch to the White House. The first time they show up, they wait around for hours outside the Oval Office and are sent home. “Does the president know why we are here?” Randall asks incredulously. When they finally get to tell the Trump-like President Orlean (Meryl Streep) about the comet, she doesn’t seem to really get it—or care. Does it test well? Will it help her reelection chances? Even worse is her chief of staff, who also happens to be her large adult son (Jonah Hill), who mocks the scientific duo for being so boring and serious.
Eventually, Randall and Kate take their case to TV, where they are interviewed by a pair of happy-talking anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), who can’t even begin to comprehend the gravity of the scenario being laid out to them. They just want to have fun! (Their show is called The Morning Rip and, again, they’re too stupid to notice that their title is an acronym for Rest In Peace.)
This is the kind of satire that grows wearisome, fast. Yes, TV anchors, particularly of the morning show variety, have been known to lean into celebrity gossip and feel-good stories and mindless chitchat. But to suggest that there are no reporters available to take the comet seriously is a bit lazy. After all, the equal and opposite phenomenon is true, too: that there are overly alarmist journalists who profit off of “The sky is falling!” type reportage. (More to the point, there are actually decent journalists out there who care about the world and work their asses off to report on climate change rigorously, but I guess it’s no fun to mock them.) Meanwhile, Kate becomes a meme for being a hysteric and the nervous Randall becomes a “Dr. McDreamy” to the online masses. If, in fact, the idea here is that two people imparting the same bad news inspire very different social media reactions based on their gender—well, okay, Adam McKay, I’ll give you that one.
Once Randall and Kate are finally able to convince President Orlean to take the comet seriously, a new character gums up the works—a weird, unblinking Mark Zuckerberg-esque tech guru played by Mark Rylance, who believes there’s trillions of dollars’ worth of precious minerals in the comet worth preserving.
“What do trillions of dollars matter if we’re all going to die?” Randall says, practically apoplectic at this point. (Again, after the fourth or fifth time, this joke loses its impact—and then McKay makes it about 100 more times just to make sure we really got it.)
Blanchett’s Brie Evantee seduces the hapless Randall who also becomes an unwitting pawn in President Orlean’s public messaging campaign. In that sense, I believe he’s supposed to be a cross between Dr. Fauci (idolized by social media) and Dr. Deborah Birx, who famously stood by Trump even when he was touting Clorox Bleach as a COVID miracle cure.
In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, there are a few jokes that genuinely land. For one, Kate becomes obsessed with a General who charged her and Randall for snacks from the White House commissary when she later finds out that the snacks are free. (A few times when she screws up her face in thought, and we think she’s contemplating the end of times, she says, “Why would a General do that?”) The other good joke comes courtesy of Chris Evans, in a cameo as an actor promoting an action film. He wears a pin pointing both up and down, to represent “both sides” of the comet debate. It’s the essence of gutless celebrity neutrality. Finally, there’s a pretty good joke in the film’s post credits scene, so stick tight for that if you make it to the end.
It’s also nice to see Jennifer Lawrence, one of my favorite actresses, working again. (Sensing her own over-saturation, she wisely stepped out of the limelight for a while.) She and Leo are both solid, but many of the big names in the cast (Streep, Ryland, Blanchett) try way too hard and fall flat.
As mentioned, Timothée Chalamet shows up about two-thirds through the film playing a God-fearing townie who falls for Kate. His mullet is unconvincing, but he definitely is—and he provides a bit of earnestness the film is otherwise lacking.
Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is more than just mean-spirited and smug. It’s aggressively those things—that is, until that sentimental coda. In the end, “everyone sucks, now God save us all” is an awfully strange framework on which to hang your film.