Adam McKay’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ Roasts Our Chaotic Times With a Killer Comet and Over-the-Top Satire
Hollywood disaster thrillers always assure us that in the face of cataclysm there will be handsome heroes ready to save the day, while the rest of us rally together. “Don’t Look Up” looks back at all those movies and just laughs an ironic cackle. Already this new satire by Adam McKay is creating short circuits online, being deemed as too smug and over-the-top. It could be that we just don’t like to reflect on ourselves soberly as a culture. True, McKay completely throws subtly out the window in this movie. At its worst it defines all too well the term “on the nose.” But there is a quirky fire in the belly when it comes to this movie.
Disasters originating in space always begin with scientists. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) are monitoring the skies when they discover a large comet with a trajectory bringing it on a direct course to hit Earth. Naturally they scramble to alert the White House. Unfortunately brash President Orleans (Meryl Streep) is more concerned with her current Supreme Court nominee, who has no law credentials but has done some porn. Her chief of staff is her own son, Jason (Jonah Hill), who acts like he belongs at a frat party. Along with their boss, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Randall and Kate try to warn the public via the media. But even a coming apocalypse can be overshadowed by pop star breakups, feel-good jokes and the allure of celebrity status. Randall even kicks off an affair with glossy TV personality Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). When the truth finally hits President Orleans about the coming end, she places our fate in the hands of tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance).
“Don’t Look Up” has the feel of a screenplay McKay surely wrote in an enraged rush during that final, pandemic-swamped lap of the Trump administration. It lacks the sharp focus of his Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” one of the great recent political dramas which was also very divisive. McKay is firing everywhere all at once, with varying, though never forgettable, results. At first the movie is a funny takedown of recyclable disaster movies like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact,” where heroic brains gather to stop doom from space, while the president always looks ideal and stoic. McKay wants to smack us and say that in today’s world, if a killer comet were hurtling at us, there wouldn’t be much heroism. Politicians are narcissists or simply idiotic. President Orleans, played with cynical venom by Meryl Streep, is drunk on power and brushes off the threat (sound familiar?). She’s obviously modeled on Trump, boasting that her poll numbers go up whenever she does something outrageous. Jason wonders why Kate would even be considered reliable since she didn’t go to an Ivy League school. The chilling truth is that if you watch a documentary like “Totally Under Control,” about Trump’s response to Covid, McKay isn’t too far off the mark in capturing the scary absurdities of bad governance. There’s no Bruce Willis around to destroy the comet, but a racist army hothead, Benedict Drask (Ron Perlman).
McKay has fun mocking our current catch phrases and cultural norms, where unsavory attitudes or bad news are glossed over. When Drask makes bizarre, homophobic remarks while blasting off to face the comet, Jason assures everyone it’s because Drask is from “a different generation.” Randall and Kate try to alert the planet on a morning show where the hosts seem unphased. Co-host Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) tells Randall they get that this is bad news, but it’s good to deliver with smiles (“it helps the medicine go down”). Ariana Grande appears in an all-too-authentic role as Riley Bina, a pop star whose breakup garners more urgency than the fate of our species. Extreme? Consider how much more attention you paid this week to some bit of celebrity gossip than to rumors of possible upcoming conflict in Ukraine involving two nuclear superpowers. McKay, who first garnered attention with slapstick humor like “Anchorman,” has evolved into the kind of upfront political filmmaker we don’t get much in these postmodern times. We worship too much subtly because it’s comfortable to not be divisive. McKay has things to say, even if in “Don’t Look Up” it’s not always so fluid.
At times the script can veer into unnecessary territory, as if McKay needed an excuse to hire two more notable actors. Randall goes viral as a “hunk astronomer” after appearing on TV and gets sucked in by the fame. No one likes Kate because she loses her cool on the air, yelling at the world to stop being stupid and wake up. The result is Randall starts sleeping with Brie Evantee, played by Blanchett in a rather mundane performance of yet another jaded news personality. There’s simply no reason for her character to exist. The same goes for a wandering skater, Yule, played by Timothée Chalamet, who befriends Kate and provides some kind of unclear, existential escape. Like Blanchett, Chalamet has no reason for being in the movie other than packing the roster. We forget all about them during the movie’s best scenes, as when DiCaprio erupts on television in a scene inspired by “Network,” pleading with society to wake the hell up from our stupors and focus on what matters. Have we become so obsessed with feeling good and ignoring bad news that we can’t sober up to stop a killer comet?
McKay’s answer to that question is that as we are, we would just stumble into more madness. He riffs on the anti-vaxxers when the comet becomes more visible in the sky and denialists start a movement chanting, “don’t look up!” Conspiracy theorists rage that the comet might even be made up. A smart government plan is tossed away when tech billionaire Isherwell, played by Mark Rylance like a creepy combination of Steve Jobs and Jeffrey Epstein, proposes his own idea to break up the comet and mine the pieces for highly valuable minerals. McKay hits some funny satirical notes with these moments that are also rightfully infuriating because they hit too close to reality. As the comet comes closer overhead pans show orgies on rooftops and wild looting. No doubt this would be how many humans would gear up for the curtain call.
When the film settles down for a more reflective tone near the end, McKay manages to get some deeper drama across that works well and reaches a place popcorn disaster movies never do. Some characters face the potential end of the world more calmly, preferring to spend it with family and friends around a dinner table, sharing stories and love for the little things. Randall looks up at the sky and sees the comet as something both wondrous and terrifying. Such moments make up for the more rushed, pounding tone McKay employs throughout the film. “Don’t Look Up” may not be a full success, but it stands out by commenting on our times with such a rough bite. Since Ancient Rome, the satirist has been there to shake us loose and say things we might not want to hear. It isn’t that McKay is smug. He writes and directs like a filmmaker looking around and realizing the world really has gone crazy. We may not want to admit it when seeking escapism. We prefer ignorant bliss, even when surviving through a pandemic as unavoidable as if a giant rock were crashing through the atmosphere.
“Don’t Look Up” releases Dec. 10 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 24 on Netflix.