Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Political satire has been around for about as long as the movies have been around. Whenever the genre comes up in conversation, you’d be hard-pressed to not bring up either The Great Dictator (1940) or Dr. Strangelove (1964). With The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin produced a wonderfully brave takedown of Adolf Hitler while the tyrant was still a threat, setting standards of hilarity (and controversy) which weren’t matched until Dr. Strangelove. Stanley Kubrick’s film upped the ante, turning the Cold War era’s fear of the atom bomb into a terrifyingly dark comedy. In current times, director Adam McKay is the primary auteur keeping this genre alive, yet it’s hard to say if his latest effort, Don’t Look Up (2021), succeeds in all of its ambitions.
We open on astronomy PHD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), who discovers a 9 kilometre wide comet. She and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Di Caprio) celebrate this scientific milestone, until their calculations determine that it’s 100% likely to strike our planet in a little over 6 months time. Given the comet’s size, it is designated a ‘planet-killer’, meaning that all life on Earth will die on impact. The two scientists immediately take their findings to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her son/Chief of Staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), but their cries for help fall on deaf ears. Despite doing everything they can to raise awareness of the impending doom, the powers at be are more interested in optics, corporate interests and profits. Not to mention, the world at large is mostly unfazed, choosing instead to ignore the issue and focus their energy on celebrity gossip.
As you can probably tell, there are many contemporary issues wrapped up in the film’s premise. Regardless of whether you take it as a climate change metaphor or a COVID-19 metaphor, the unifying critique is that of our collective response. McKay’s script feels like a cry for help, as it is practically overflowing with pointed criticism of social media, fear mongering, misinformation, and government policies made to benefit corporations. All this makes Don’t Look Up‘s high concept doomsday feel frighteningly plausible, which makes the many moments of laughter elicit just as much frustration. This is definitely McKay’s intention, even if the thematic messaging is about as subtle as a shovel to the head.
There’s nothing wrong with making the point clear, just as long as the narrative itself doesn’t fall too far into outright farce. Sure, Dr. Strangelove famously ended with an airforce pilot riding a launched nuke like a rodeo, but the road to its humorously cynical conclusion started on a fairly believable path. For the first hour or so, Don’t Look Up follows a similarly strong path, but the mid-film twist throws a massive spanner in the works. While the specific story point is perfectly on brand for the film’s thematics, it pushes the plot into some unwarranted science fiction clichés. Up until this moment the satirical points were going down smooth, but removing the scientific realism sadly dulls the rest of the messaging. For the viewer to remain invested in both the story and the comedy, they need to believe what is being presented on screen. While the depicted political divide is very believable, it’s hard to imagine these arguments occurring over the obviously ridiculous science fiction elements.
This would only be a minor issue if it wasn’t for the film’s excessive length. The presentation, scale and humour are all genuine positives and make the film fun to watch at times, but it’s hard to sustain that kind of tone for anything more than an hour and a half. Don’t Look Up reaches two and half hours, meaning the audience starts to get bored long before the conclusion. There’s barely any attempt to mitigate this problem, as most of the major plot points are played out around the all important hour and a half mark. By the end, it feels like the film has repeated the same joke over and over without adding anything new to the conversation.
The runtime isn’t the only excessive element, as the cast is stacked with an overwhelming amount of heavy hitters. With a roster which includes Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Ron Pearlman, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey and Michael Chiklis, McKay has outdone the ensembles he collected for The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018). While this roster is undeniably impressive, it’s hard to say that any of them have enough room to really dig their teeth into their characters. Di Caprio, Lawrence, Streep and Morgan get enough material to develop, but the rest of them are reduced to simple caricatures. This was clearly intentional, but that seems at odds with other narrative goals, as many of the characters are given extensive backstories we are meant to care about.
That being said, the sheer ambition of the narrative is something to be admired, as it tries its best to hit every beat possible. The closer we get to the climax the more insane things get, even delivering some scenarios which wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Rick and Morty (2013 – Current). Sadly, there is an additional drawback to this, as the conclusion is actually very predictable and not nearly as profound as it intends. Where the final scenes want us to think, we are checking our watch. Where they deliver the punchline, we are rolling our eyes. Ultimately, the audience is smarter than the film, which is not what you should be feeling upon leaving the cinema.
If we’re still comparing this satire to The Great Dictator or Dr. Strangelove, it’s important to note that those earlier films had a lot more to say than just “we’re all screwed” or “people are terrible”. There was nuance to the comedy and specificity to the political perspective. Granted, the kernel of what McKay is trying to say with Don’t Look Up is a good thing. McKay is raising important talking points, and the film will likely spark conversation. There is something profound about a film that screams into the void, it just needed to realise that many of us are already screaming a lot louder.
Best way to watch it: Right before deleting every social media app.