Making a political satire in 2021 is one difficult task. How do you make a satirical movie about a reality that is so bizarre right now, if it was a movie plot in any other time period, critics would slam it as ridiculous and over-the-top?
That is the tall order director Adam McKay took on with the latest Movie Everyone Is Talking About, “Don’t Look Up.” McKay’s latest film is a continuation of his trend away from broad satires and toward more dark comedy/drama-type movies such as “The Big Short” and “Vice,” which may have led to his well-publicized breakup with his creative partner, Will Ferrell. So, has McKay succeeded in skewering how our society reacts to serious threats like COVID-19 and climate change?
I would say mostly, he has.
“Don’t Look Up” begins with our intrepid heroes, Dr. Randall Mindy, an astronomy professor played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and one of his graduate students, Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence (smell the Oscar bait already), discovering a new comet, and then calculating its path. As you have probably heard by now, they find out the thing is heading right for us, and it’s really big.
What follows is a trip to the Oval Office, where they are met with apathy by obvious conservative President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep, again, smell the Oscar bait), and her Chief of Staff, who is also her toadie son, Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill). Initial attempts to cover up the killer comet fail, which leads to Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky appearing on a breezy morning show to try to warm people, but the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) are hyper-focused on “keeping it light.”
Dibiasky’s frustration boils over, turning her into a social media meme, and Mindy becomes seduced by fame and Blanchett’s Fox News-esque morning show host. Soon an oddball tech mogul, Peter Isherwell, played by Mark Rylance, becomes involved because of course he does.
Make no mistake, this is one angry movie, perhaps the most pissed movie I’ve seen in a while. There are multiple times where the movie itself seems to possess DiCaprio and Lawrence, when they launch into rants about people not taking an existential threat more seriously, often to great comic effect. There are also scenes in it that seemed to be designed to enrage Rachel Maddow, as various conspiracy theories pop up on the Internet about whether there is even a comet.
This is also a movie that probably couldn’t be made five years ago. There are moments in it, such as a presidential sex scandal, that would be considered absurd prior to Trump. Now they get a “sadly enough, I could see that” type reaction. There are very funny moments, some moments that are not clear whether they are intended to be funny, and moments of deep existential angst. The title itself comes from a conservative slogan championed by the Meryl Streep president, “Don’t Look Up,” which is basically telling the movie wingers to ignore the planet-destroying comet, everything will be fine.
But does it all work?
I will say that there are moments where it feels like the movie is ready to careen off the rails and collapse under its own anger. Streep is really not given much to do other than be a series of right-wing memes, and while she was her usual marvelous self, it feels like her character could have been more. There is an infidelity plot in the film that feels attached and is sort of clumsily handled.
However, I’d best describe the movie as an angry gymnast doing a crazy vault full of spins and twists and somersaults, all while rage-screaming. And then sticking the landing. I feel like the third act of “Don’t Look Up,” is a bit unusual in where often a movie falls apart in the third act, this film ends strong (won’t spoil a pretty wonderful ending except to tell you to stick around until midway through the credits). Also, Hill’s chief of staff/spoiled brat son is obviously an amalgamation of Trump’s spawn but still kind of fun, and, Rylance’s tech guru performance was outstanding. McKay was wise in creating Isherwell as his own sort of weirdo, and not as a Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Must clone. He’s still one of those tech moguls who are so strange that you can’t figure out why people take what they say as a form of gospel.
Blanchett and Perry are solid as representations of a rather heinous aspect of our society that I refer to as Toxic Positivity. The two happy-happy morning hosts drive our heroes insane by making jokes and focusing on “positive things” while they are trying to warn people of our Earth’s imminent demise. Toxic Positivity takes many forms, such as those concern trolls who hector civil rights activists for being “divisive” or shout down people warning of imminent dangers as “focusing on the negative,” and the movie works well here mocking those tendencies.
A big part of this movie’s impact is the real-life critical reaction and it’s often been rather meta. Some dismiss it as two hours of yelling, although some admit we probably deserve it. It’s hard to go into a movie like this with your personal views bracketed out, so if you are one of those who think divisiveness is The Real Problem then you’ll hate it and find it mean, or if you Hate the Libs, then it’ll probably make you really whiny. Some might find it too much. But those who dismiss it as over-the-top and unbelievable are sort of like the people denying the comet. How can you have been awake for the last five years and not see that the absurdity of the Trump movement makes the events of the movie much more plausible?
But what I find most interesting is a lot of scientists seem to love it. Some seem to really love it. I am a weather nerd and follow a lot of meteorologists on social media and they really seemed to relate to it, including the rage-rants by the movie scientists. I will say that while many are taking this as a parable about climate change, I take it more as a commentary of our current inability as a society full of delusional, anti-science, mean-spirited, and selfish people to address any form of existential threat.
So…is the movie good? I work as a science writer for a university, so there were a few “oh Hollywood that’s not how it works” moments for me, such as grad students addressing their advisor as “professor” which is really rather rare. But overall, while imperfect, I think McKay and the cast have pulled off a time capsule of a film that will be a marker of our current era. I don’t put it in the same league as “Dr. Strangelove” as far as a political satire spoofing a society’s inability to address a serious threat. But I do believe it is worth a watch and deserving to be considered as a spark for further discussion.
I give it three stars out of four.
The last word goes to The Purple One, who wrote an end-times song classic that will turn 40 this coming year. “1999” will be a forty-year-old song soon? That’s enough to make me feel like the world is ending.