Released: 25th November
Seen: 26th December
There’s a joke that’s been going around lately that relates to the way that the entire planet has responded to the insanity of the covid pandemic. “Guess we have to remove the phrase ‘avoid like the plague’ from our lexicon since we apparently don’t know how to do that”. It’s a dark commentary on how we as a species just seem to be unable to mildly inconvenience ourselves in the short term in order to avoid long term catastrophe. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s been happening for years around Climate Change among a host of other issues. This strange behaviour is what a film like Don’t Look Up is trying to comment on but it has the slight problem of having to compete with the actual insanity of reality.
Don’t Look Up hypothesises that a large comet is making a course directly for the earth and the first two scientists to notice it, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), try to raise the alarm. They do this by taking their information directly to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) in hopes that she’ll be able to get them the resources they need in order to destroy the comet before it hits the earth. Of course, they soon run into the hell of political bureaucracy, corporate greed and general stupidity that makes it harder for them to get their message across, which could just result in the death of all life on the planet.
Some films might try to hide their politics, but Don’t Look Up isn’t one of those films. This film is blunt, it’s as subtle as a railway spike enema and has no qualms about it. It’s going to make its point and not play the both sides game, it’s done being subtle… the problem is that it forgets to be funny or indeed entertaining throughout it which means that it’s going to alienate some people. This movie isn’t just preaching to the choir, it’s part of the damn choir and lip-syncing along because everyone else is already singing so why should it bother standing out.
Don’t Look Up is essentially about global warming, but due to its timing it can also be a metaphor for how Covid has been handled and anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years can tell you that things have been insane. The idea of any good satire should be to make fun of situations through exaggeration and Don’t Look Up almost feels tame in comparison to our lived experience. The idea of the President of the United States lying about something deadly approaching the planet and minimising its potential risks to the point where all the president’s followers refuse to so much as acknowledging the reality that’s right in front of them? That’s just what’s been actually happening, hell the reality of the situation is that the president lied about the impact to such an extent that his followers turned on him the second he dared say “get the vaccine”. That’s what happened within the last few weeks! You can’t be more ridiculous than that and Don’t Look Up doesn’t even try.
It’s certainly not fence-sitting, indeed it pointedly calls out those who are playing the centrist role in this calamity. It calls out reporters who sugarcoat bad stories to try and make them palatable, calls out billionaires who put the planet at tremendous risk for a few more dollars, even calls out stupid world leaders with bad hats but it never does it in a way that’s interesting. Hell, I’ve seen more pointed barbs thrown on Twitter at 2 am by wine moms who have finally had enough.
Don’t Look Up can’t even really bring themselves to go all the way with their satire, just kind of being a drab recreation of some of the lighter moments of insanity we’ve all lived through. I mean, we’re going through a period in history where we have literally seen politicians go on camera and state that people should be willing to die in order to keep the economy going so the absurdity bar is incredibly high and Don’t Look Up just can’t top that or be funnier than that.
By failing to be more over the top than reality, those who are on the side being mocked here just won’t listen to the points being made… which is ironic because that’s the point of the film, those who need to listen most won’t listen to reality. This film is just showing reality but with a few well known actors, your standard climate/covid denialist isn’t going to listen to them! Look, there is always a place for cathartic yelling and this film is absolutely doing that… but maybe you could do a little more than spend 2 hours screaming “We’re fucked, we’re fucked, we’re very very fucked”. I can do that on my own without the help of Meryl Streep, thankyou very much.
If you go beyond the problems of just failing to be a decent satire (which is admittedly not helped by the fact that this situation we’re living through is impossible to parody by already being incredibly stupid at every level) then the film itself is just indulging all of Adam McKay’s worst tendencies. He still uses the hyper editing style that just doesn’t work here, it’s overlong and full of mundane bits. Basically, McKay hit gold with The Big Short and has been trying to recapture that energy ever since, which he mostly pulled off with Vice but it’s not woking with this, especially with the editing that occasionally just feels like someone decided to throw random offcuts in to act as filler. It ends up making the film way longer than it has to be, this thing could’ve been a breezy energetic and powerful hour and a half and they just stretch it beyond its limit.
This isn’t to say Don’t Look Up is entirely bad. The performances are what you expect from a cast this stacked and there are some potentially interesting ideas that are here that just needed to be explored a little more. Maybe the biggest laugh of the film is Ariana Grande’s performance of “Just Look Up”, a song that is about as blunt as you could expect (as in the lyrics include the phrase “Just listen to the goddamn qualified scientists, we really fucked it up this time”) but performed so dramatically that the contrast makes it funny. You almost end up wishing the entire film had the tone of that one musical number… that would’ve made for a far more interesting film.
Mostly, Don’t Look Up is just kind of disappointing. It’s not a sharp enough satire to actually cut anything, the people who agree with its message are going to see how it doesn’t have the bite required to be that memorable and the people who probably need to hear its message aren’t going to watch anyway because we are so divided that they’ll take one look at the cast and go “Nope, piss off”. You can’t make one side laugh, you can’t get the other sides attention, what the hell can this film do beyond being Dr Strangelove without the punchlines?