Informative, funny, well written, well acted, and crystal clear in its message.
Those are just some of the ways I will lovingly describe Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) to this day. Sadly, they are all also words I emphatically cannot use when talking about the writer-director’s new film, Don’t Look Up, which opened worldwide on Netflix on 24th December.
A $75 million climate change parable brimming with an all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, and Tyler Perry, among others, Don’t Look Up fails in every way that The Big Short succeeded, and it—in concert with Vice—makes it look more and more like the 2015 film was a strange, aberrant blip of quality on McKay’s transition from broad, sometimes excellent (hello, Anchorman, and, well, nothing else), American humour, into well-intentioned but poorly made Hollywood quasi-activism. I’m on your side, McKay, mate. Just try to do better please!
Don’t Look Up begins with Kate Dibiaski (Lawrence), a Michigan State University graduate astronomy student, discovering a near-Earth comet one night while working on data gathered from Japan’s Subaru Telescope. In disbelief, she calls in her supervisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), who confirms the sighting and brings in the rest of the team to celebrate the discovery of Comet Dibiaski and to crunch through more of the available data to figure out additional information about the object. The jubilation of the night soon curdles, however, as Mindy’s calculations reveal a disturbing truth: The comet, between five and ten kilometers wide, is heading straight for the Earth. There is a 99.78% chance of a direct hit, with all the extinction-level event implications that brings with it. The scientists make an additional calculation: This apocalypse will arrive in just six months’ time.
What follows is over two hours of an overly broad, unfunny, ‘satirical’ saga tracking the two scientists’ efforts at not just getting the truth about the comet out to the world, but at trying to get the world to care. The head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe—played by Rob Morgan and his wig—is one of the few people in their corner, but arrayed against their cause are vacuous United States President Janie Orlean (Streep, bad), douchebro Chief of Staff and President’s son Jason Orlean (Hill, worse), perpetually cheery and vapid morning TV show hosts Brie Evantee (Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Perry), and creepy tech-billionaire Peter Isherwell (Rylance, who really should know better than the strange attempts at possibly neurodivergent caricature that this role seems to consist of), as well as the truth-hostile environment of mainstream and social media.
It’s a shame, really. A damn shame that Don’t Look Up is such a misfire. Personally, I was primed to like it—or at least to give it a lot of leeway—for obvious reasons. Its subject matter is one that I’m massively invested in, its perspective ostensibly strongly aligned with my own. This is a film after all that aims to highlight the corporate media’s complicity in bringing about the catastrophic climate change that is already wreaking havoc on our planet and which will bring levels of disaster such as we have never seen before. This is a film that indicts those who govern us as enmeshed in a deeply rooted network of incredibly rotten corruption, emblematic of a system of extractive capitalism that places the interests of shareholders above the preservation of life itself. A movie that notes how the capitalist society of spectacle may well be instrumental in our demise.
That ticks so many of my boxes! How bad do you have to be, Don’t Look Up, for me to just not be swept along, all critical faculties suspended?!
Even now, reading a synopsis of the film after watching it, I can’t help but think: Damn, everything about this should work! And, to be fair, there are a few things here that do work. For one thing, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio—despite working with poorly written roles—do a frequently good job of manifesting the feelings of rage and disbelief that some hypothetical avatars of science and reason would feel at our treatment of the planet-and logic.
My view of Leo’s acting prowess has travelled a long and winding road, but he is without a doubt the best part of Don’t Look Up, his line readings delivering a majority of the film’s few laughs. There is also a decent enough recurring gag about a high ranking general and the availability of snacks at the White House, as well as the odd laugh to be found here and there—one newspaper headline cutaway: ‘The end is near. Will there be a Superbowl?’—but by and large the efforts at humour here feel like juvenile, Grand Theft Auto-level sledgehamer attempts at satire (and I say that as a fan of the video game series, sophistication is not one of its hallmarks).
Don’t Look Up makes stabs at pathos and human emotion too, but the ones that get anywhere near to successful are scattered similarly few and far between. The occasional quick montage/supercut of the infinitely varied forms of life on Earth; the moment in the story at which the planet-destroying comet looms so huge in the night sky that it can no longer be ignored and a crowd of people step out of their cars to stare—a spectacle of a species gazing into the maw of its own destruction with doomed foreknowledge; one character’s calm, matter-of-fact lamentation of humanity’s squandering of the most precious gift of all as the comet impacts: ‘The thing of it is: We really did have everything, didn’t we?’ I can count on the fingers of one hand the parts of the film that came close to eliciting some sort of feeling.
I have to applaud Adam McKay for using the platform that he has to address the single most pressing issue that we face as a species, but I can’t help but be deeply frustrated that the way he has chosen to do so fails on so many levels, both dramatically and didactically.
Perhaps the best way to describe the ways in which Don’t Look Up doesn’t measure up is to return to The Big Short as a case study in contrasts. Not everyone is a fan of McKay’s 2015 caustic denunciation of Wall Street—some feel it is glib and superficial—but to me it remains one of the best examples of a thoroughly mainstream American writer-director using populist filmmaking to address the evils of our political systems. The Big Short functions as both an effective explainer of how the financial crisis of 2007/8 occurred—using graphics and fourth wall-breaking cutaways and a host of other techniques—as well as a dramatically satisfying narrative featuring some of the key individuals at the heart of that story. It’s populated by well-drawn, distinctive characters brought to life by expert performers. They mostly feel like real people, and not only does the script draw you in this way, it also gives them constant opportunities to flex their comedic chops (give Ryan Gosling more funny roles please, Hollywood).
Playing out during the final moments before the disaster of 2007/8, The Big Short hooks you in with a similarly apocalyptic-themed story to Don’t Look Up, but it succeeds in imbuing that story with dramatic stakes, intrigue, tension, and bucketloads of sheer entertainment—things that the latter film never once manages. The two elements of The Big Short work in concert, advancing its message effectively: These are the bastards, this is how they did it, this is how they’ll keep doing it—you have every right to be angry. In Don’t Look Up, neither works. What insights the film offers into the way current power structures perpetuate themselves and are damming us are slight and delivered with a tone that doesn’t know where to pitch itself (that confusion extends to the formal means it uses to communicate occasional nuggets of real-world information, with the film apparently unsure as to whether it wants to use onscreen graphics and other similar techniques or not). I did appreciate the fact that the film didn’t seem to play a cheap and reductive partisan game, and it resisted laying all the blame for the world’s ills at the feet of one political party while casting the other as a salvation—if it had done so during an allegory about climate change it would’ve fallen to truly meaningless levels—but this wasn’t enough to balance out its shortcomings.
There are seeds of good narrative ideas in Don’t Look Up. The way that Lawrence’s angry, idealistic scientist refuses to get co-opted by a system she correctly identifies as corrupt while DiCaprio’s more amicable character gets swept up in things for a while would seem to be easy material for a scriptwriter to use not just as a commentary on the way the world works, but as rich dramatic material for the ups and downs of a personal and professional relationship. Unfortunately, the film—like with most of its story ideas—just goes through the motions here, lazily hitting (some of) the beats of this arc and expecting us to care while hastily moving on to the next self-congratulatory montage of social media vapidity or thinly veiled celebrity parody. The drama of Dibiaski’s and Mindy’s break and reconciliation, which should be the human heart of this kind of story, is nonexistent. Don’t Look Up is stacked with some of the biggest names in the film industry, yet all it gives them to work with is a series of two-dimensional cartoons. This might be less damaging if those cartoons were funny, or if the overall story was compelling, but neither is the case.
Frankly, considering the nature of the issue that Don’t Look Up wants to raise, any narrative shortcomings the film has would be easy to ignore if it simply managed to address that issue properly. The saddest part of the experience of watching the film was noting just how much it failed to do so. I’ve seen some people criticise Don’t Look Up for lacking subtlety. I’m not bothered by this. I don’t necessarily need or want the communications about climate change to be subtle. The issue itself certainly is not subtle. We are heading towards—and, again, already are in the midst of—unprecedented death and destruction. Our systems and rulers are not just woefully ill-equipped to deal with this or to prevent the worst of it, they are actively complicit in bringing it about. Those communities around the world that are the most vulnerable and that have had the least part to play in causing the crisis will be the ones to suffer the first and the worst. This isn’t subtle sh*t! This is horrifying, grotesque, psychologically debilitating stuff to ponder—if you even have the privilege to ponder in the first place! I don’t necessarily need subtlety here. Sometimes, to fight propaganda, you need to go loud and bold. But you still have to be effective. We are fighting an almightily powerful enemy. Competence is a necessary minimum. Regrettably, Don’t Look Up does not meet those standards. Its central metaphor doesn’t even make sense! Yes, capitalism is responding as dreadfully to climate change in real life as it does to the comet in the film—the key difference is that capitalism didn’t cause that comet to come hurtling out of the sky in the first place.
Like it or not, we are going to be living in a world of vapid celebrity, cancerous consumerism, and middle of the road mass entertainment for at least a while longer. How our mainstream storytelling is going to reckon with the increasingly un-ignorable reality of climate collapse encroaching upon all this remains to be seen. I’m not sure I have the answers as to how it should be done. All I know is that Don’t Look Up made me quite angry, for all the wrong reasons, for feeling very much like an example of how it shouldn’t be done.
Considering the grinding, grueling, painfully gradual, and unequal ways the next few decades will play out, we should be so bloody lucky so as to all be instantly vapourised by a cosmic fireball.
Oh well, at least for now there’s always Paul Schrader’s devastating First Reformed.
Header Image Source: Netflix