Don’t Look Up, the latest film from director Adam McKay, premiered on Netflix on Christmas Eve amid a flurry of anticipation. With no fewer than eight Oscar nominees and winners among its enviable cast and the promise of a satirical take on humanity’s apathetic response to climate change, it seemed like an awards player from the moment it was announced. Upon seeing the film, critics were less enthused.
While the movie has some supporters, it currently has a rather paltry 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score far smaller than one would expect from an awards player headlined by unmitigated megastars. Many reviews described the film as smug, cynical, and toothless in its satire. I myself thought it was exhausting, condescending, and not especially funny. For me, Adam McKay has reached a level of holier-than-thou finger-wagging that would make even Aaron Sorkin roll his eyes. Our own Petr was also disappointed with Don’t Look Up.
If it were any other Netflix film released to mixed reviews over the holiday break then I’m not sure the conversations surrounding it would be particularly fervent. Besides, we’re all still in the midst of Marvel hot takes and I’m pretty sure we’re due our weekly ‘Martin Scorsese is too mean to superhero movies’ regurgitation. Who’s got time for Adam McKay stuff? Well, apparently a lot of people, because the responses to Don’t Look Up and the critics who disliked it have gotten surreal.
Look on Twitter, if you must, and you’ll see a lot of declarations that ‘elitist critics’ are trying to keep Don’t Look Up and its important messages down. Krystal Ball, a left-wing political commentator, declared that the movie was an ‘indictment of the dystopia they’ve created.’ Conservation strategist Dr. Ayana Johnson tweeted that ‘dismissive critics’ were ‘proving the film’s point that they are part of the problem’ by ‘quibbling’ over its faults. This was an argument similarly echoed by David Sirota, the journalist who co-wrote the movie. Adam McKay joined in on the fun, of course. After claiming that he was ‘loving all the heated debate’ surrounding Don’t Look Up, McKay declared that ‘if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story. “WHy ArE thEir FacEs so cLoSe ToGether?”’ Huh.
This from @mattzollerseitz is the tell showing how some critics are operating in bad faith. McKay made a simple non-controversial point. This @NYMag critic then pretends he's saying something he never said.— David Sirota (@davidsirota) December 29, 2021
This is ideology - these people cannot stand the message of the film. pic.twitter.com/ARonpn8nz2
Loving all the heated debate about our movie. But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story. “WHy ArE thEir FacEs so cLoSe ToGether?”— Adam McKay (@GhostPanther) December 29, 2021
The media overkill on the Adam McKay and David Sirota film, Don’t Look Down, with an extraordinary level of reviewer aggression toward what is basically a satire, persuaded me to watch it. It’s pretty good.— Richard Seymour (@leninology) December 29, 2021
I wrote about the bizarre critical response to #DontLookUp: "If 'Don’t Look Up' is infuriating to watch, it is because it does a pitch-perfect job of channeling climate experts’ weary frustration at being ignored." https://t.co/pCYWDWgx00— Dave Vetter (@DavidRVetter) December 28, 2021
Humbling stuff pic.twitter.com/cuICU5qTnx— Guy Lodge (@GuyLodge) December 28, 2021
Overall, the arguments were all pretty similar: snooty critics in their ivory towers are set on nitpicking an Important Movie into oblivion and doing so is an implicit rejection of the narrative’s themes. One genuinely bonkers response to the critic Guy Lodge claimed that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel ‘both died horribly like they had been cursed by God’ as part of his nonsensical argument. Can I have a yikes from the crowd?
If you’ve been on the internet long enough then you’ll have seen variations of these lines many times over. I’ve been in this business for a few years now and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been lobbed at with the ‘snooty/elitist critic’ line. I’m either being paid off by mega-corporations to give other films bad reviews or I’m such an unbearable snob who secretly loathes movies and wants to destroy them all through my scathing wit. My opinions on a piece of pop culture are often used as a strange battering ram of morality. To like a piece of dark or challenging art is, to many, a ringing and unconditional endorsement of its ethics. I gotta say, it is super unnerving to be accused of all manner of horrifying things because I’ve admitted to liking, say, violent films or books with traumatic themes but that’s a story for another day. With Don’t Look Up, its fans seem to be pushing the evidently wonky narrative that those who dislike the film, especially those ‘elitist critics’, are helping to exacerbate the troubling issue of the climate crisis. To hate the film is to reject its earnest intentions.
You don’t need me to tell you how obviously daft this notion is. Just because I disliked Cats, that doesn’t mean I’m against the species. Loving Hannibal isn’t an endorsement of cannibalistic psychiatrists gaslighting their sweaty boyfriends. To draw a correlation between someone’s taste in entertainment and their moral center is, to say the least, really f**king problematic. It’s also extremely lazy criticism, the kind of blow you make when you don’t actually want to engage in a conversation.
It must suck to pour your heart and soul into something, to truly believe that what you’re making could change the world, only to see people deride it as bad. McKay has reinvented himself as a director of shaggy comedies populated by stupid men to a wannabe political force, a cross between Kubrick and Kramer. The Big Short saw him win an Oscar for his canny ability to condense the dizzying minutiae of the 2008 financial crisis into an accessible, fun, yet no less furious satire of a broken system. That film worked in large part because McKay knew how to land a joke without diluting his wider point. You remember the gags, but you also remember Margot Robbie explaining bad mortgages from a bubble bath. McKay suddenly became important, and this new professional direction proved divisive. Vice tried to break through the bulletproof image of 21st century American politics’ shadiest and most enigmatic kingmaker, only to stumble as it struggled to offer anything truly illuminating about the man or the world he made. It still landed a bunch of Oscar nominations, further securing McKay’s status in his newly chosen field. Adam McKay makes Films That Matter.
The message of Don’t Look Up is clearly a prescient one: the world’s political inaction on climate change is dooming us to an avoidable hellscape of a future, and wider issues of media ignorance, outside interests, and an overall anti-science mentality are only exacerbating the problem. I’m probably more left-wing than McKay and I certainly agree with this theme. Hell, I’ve found myself more and more with each passing day consumed by this realization. It’s a smothering thing to live with and anything that those with major platforms can do to draw attention to the situation is welcomed. That doesn’t mean that I have to close my eyes and pretend that Don’t Look Up is a good or well-executed piece of art. It’s a staggering level of media illiteracy on display to suggest otherwise, and I wish that it surprised me more how increasingly common this mentality seems to be. To see it encouraged by the artists themselves is just depressing.
One of the aspects of Don’t Lok Up that actually works is the growing exasperation among the protagonists that the absolutely bleeding obvious isn’t being acknowledged. It’s not enough for the powers that be to know how close we are to our own annihilation for anyone to do something helpful about it. McKay’s targets may be off and his methods messy, but that part resonates. Maybe that’s what a lot of the film’s fans and creators are echoing. Surely, if the message is important enough then people will listen? Given that the film is also in part about the ineffectiveness of bad messaging regardless of the point being made, you’d think McKay himself would understand the responses.
It would be great if Don’t Look Up changed some crucial minds on this agonizing issue but I’m skeptical of its ability to do so. Being visited by three ghosts on the night before Christmas wouldn’t stop these people from being callous. Regardless, seeing grown millionaires and their ilk try to claim that critical dissent is part of some elitist pro-fossil fuel echo chamber is the least interesting conversation we could be having about the climate crisis. That it’s the one McKay and Sirota want to have is perhaps a sign of how truly futile we all feel about the central issue.