MOVIE REVIEW – From outer space, a giant asteroid is hurtling towards us at breakneck speeds, and its collision with Earth could destroy all life on our planet. Two scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) try to warn power-hungry politicians, a media that is a total ratings whore and a humanity that is dumbed down by all this and social media, but of course no one cares. Adam McKay’s scathing satire on global warming also hits where it hurts most.
The world is ending, but nobody cares. Based on the almost irrefutable evidence of humanity’s demise, humans had a time to avoid it, but the desperate warnings of scientists and experts were willfully ignored and aggressively misinterpreted. People don’t agree much with experts, scientists or government (when it finally cares), even when the imminent extinction of the human race is inevitable. What happened to us? How did we get here?
Is this a real world account of the state of climate change or a plot synopsis for the new film Don’t Look Up? This is the question director Adam McKay wants to ask the audience. McKay uses the fictional discovery of an imminent, planet-killing comet and its six-month journey straight to Earth as an allegory for the current political and ecological situation. Although the film’s execution is not up to the excellent concept in all respects, it is nevertheless a great killer satire about all of humanity.
No one cares
The film follows two Michigan scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, the latter of whom discovers an apocalyptic comet that has a nearly 100% chance of destroying the Earth. They embark on a long, hopeless attempt to get anyone to care, from the government and its Trump-like president (played by a lavish but wonderfully warped Meryl Streep) to the condescending media.
Countless stars fill largely insignificant roles in the frustratingly inconsistent mission of the scientists. Jonah Hill improvises in a few scenes as Meryl Streep’s son and chief of staff, Tyler Perry appears as a great caricature of a talk show host, Arianna Grande has a completely unnecessary side-spin and a musical moment with Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey DiCaprio’s wife Timothee Chalomet is a religious one, as a religious young hippie and gamer, showing that Dune can play a completely different character to Paul Atreides, while Chris Evans, famous for his Captain America, is merely a comic cameo, and the otherwise brilliant Ron Perlman is a bit over the top as a politically incorrect astronaut.
Blanchett and Rylance are amazing
When a film is packed with so many stars, it’s hard for any of them to shine. Cate Blanchett and Mark Rylance, however, are incredible in very specific, quirky roles. Blanchett is the other co-host of an over-zealous, happy-go-lucky talk show who begins an affair with the ‘sexy scientist’ DiCaprio. She’s perfect in every scene, whether she’s talking about how many presidents of the United States she’s slept with, pining for the stubborn Midwestern scientist, or taking on his comically callous and cynical attitude to the world. And Rylance gives one of his strongest performances of the year as the hugely charismatic tech giant who is one part Mister Rogers, one part Steve Jobs, one part Joe Biden. It’s a small but truly unique and masterful role for the Oscar-winning actor.
The humour of the film is more sophisticated and acerbic, despite the slightly Mars Attacks! set-up, although perhaps because of this it is often less funny and the tone becomes more tragic from the second half of the film. It does have a few incredibly well-timed jokes, such as the one about a Pentagon general asking people for free White House snacks. Regardless, the genre of the film is more a cruel, apt satire of humanity than a film comedy. It should be noted, however, that McKay has no apparent interest in directing the film with the comic energy he is usually so good at.
It is also typical that while the film is not funny, it is not particularly dramatic. There’s a bit too much subplot, character and narrative deadlock, and this somewhat hinders the build-up of tension or emotional investment. The film doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be dramatic, but its subject matter is hardly funny. McKay has an excellent knack for combining comedy and drama, but here he’s less successful at that part.
“The end of the world can wait”
This is not to say that the film is a failure, in fact, in many ways it is a hit. The premise is ingenious, allowing McKay to dissect the present moment through his fictional script. The director is clearly angry and frustrated that the world continues to ignore, bicker or attack experts and scientists on a number of key issues of the moment, from the coronavirus to climate change, and channels this through some of his characters.
“Do you know how many ‘end of the world’ meetings we’ve had over the years?” the president asks the scientists derisively, before telling them to “wait and see”, despite the fact that the comet is about to hit. Someone in the media reports that “Jewish billionaires invented this comet so the government could take away our freedom”, echoing the actual statements of conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Take it easy,” says one talk show host as scientists prepare to report their planet-killing findings to the world. “Sadness is bad,” the tech billionaire tells the crowd. Clearly, no one wants to listen to the upsetting facts about the imminent extinction of humanity.
DiCaprio’s character gets caught up in the madness, at first in disbelief, then sucked into the celebrity culture around him, until he realises that no one is doing anything to prevent the impending doomsday. The actor is once again brilliant, for example when he utters a blistering indictment that is more about our times, when people can’t agree on vaccinations, masks, environmental disaster, politics or anything in general.
A crooked mirror for the Americans
McKay’s film is both an apt indictment and a wry, often cruelly humorous, mirror of American society. Perhaps, it would have been nice to expand the universe of the film a little outside the US, although the 2 hours 20 minutes of film time is still a bit long – the film could have made its point in less time. However, the film avoids the trap of didacticism, but the right balance and weighting of comedy and tragedy is not perfect. Still, it tackles issues that are relevant to all of us – and with great actors.