Nobody likes to be the butt of the joke. That is very apparent by the divisive reactions to Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s realistically absurdist satire that throws subtlety out the window. Then, shoots a couple of rounds into that subtlety on its way down… just in case.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are in prime form as astronomer Randall Mindy, and his protégé Kate Dibiasky. Together, they make a disturbing discovery – there’s a comet hurtling towards earth, and it will end humanity when it lands in 6 months and 14 days. The two scientists quickly try to warn President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), as well as the mainstream media. But their crusade is quickly warped and repurposed into ways that benefit the channels they’re trying to communicate with. Before long, the pair’s message has been obfuscated by so much unnecessary BS, that the general public is not heeding what should be a very simple message: deter this comet, or we have no chance for survival.
But, of course, the film isn’t just a typical sci-fi disaster movie about a comet. It is, intentionally, a thinly veiled commentary on climate change. During production, the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic also found some influence on the screenplay. McKay skewers our government, the media, celebrity worship, and the public’s obsession with social media to stew a cynical and unsettling black comedy, that questions are we too distracted and self-centered to muster an ounce of empathy for our own demise?
Early on, Randall and Kate go on a morning “news” show to discuss the impending emergency with two happy-go-lucky, goofball anchors (Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett). However, their story is overshadowed by the breakup of pop stars Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (KiD CuDi). The affair-ridden scandal is what really blows up social media. Meanwhile, the only story that comes from the doomsday announcement is that Kate becomes an unflattering meme about angry “libs”, and Randall becomes the internet’s DILF.
The film’s intended criticism of society seems to be of both stupidity and an unhealthy devotion to self-interest. When our protagonists first arrive at the oval office, a high-ranking officer (Literally named GENERAL THEMES) charges them for snacks. Later, Kate learns that all the snacks in the White House are free. The fact that the General charged her for seemingly no good reason becomes a running gag that she can’t wrap her head around – just why was he so selfish?
The President, and her son Jason (Jonah Hill) who is a walking parody of nepotism, aren’t very helpful. But the issue isn’t just their lack of intelligence, is that they have no empathy. President Orlean, a celebrity-obsessed narcissist, wants to use the crisis to leverage support at the mid-terms. Jason, who seems like the dumber spirit animal of Roman from Succession, finds the entire situation to be incredibly boring until he can find a way to profit off it. He seems more interested in critiquing Kate’s Michigan State education, or more pointedly her attire, which he sarcastically remarks “Thanks for dressing up.” At least his priorities are in order.
Inexplicably, tech mogul Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) hijacks any real attempt to impede the comet. Isherwell is the CEO of the fictional app BASH LIIF, and it’s his greed that throws a wrench in the best efforts from Randall and Kate. Rylance steals every scene he’s in, like a fidgety, older Elon Musk-like character whose strange speech patterns make it seem like he’s doped up on several medications. The use of BASH and Isherwell as a metaphor for how technological advancements, no matter how democratic their marketing may seem, are really only beneficial for the wealthy doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s this throughline that carries Don’t Look Up not only to its conclusion but into the end credits.
This is far from the first film that has depicted the crumbling of our culture. Similarities can be found in Idiocracy (2006), a film about how our unhealthy obsession with frivolous pop culture shields us from knowledge. Then there’s Network (1976), a movie that foretold the commercialization of the news would exacerbate misinformation and sensationalism. But I think McKay’s opus takes the majority of its cues from Dr. Strangelove (1964), Stanley Kubrick’s satire about Cold War stupidity.
In Strangelove, the characters’ handling of war is linked with their perverted sexual desires, and in some cases their impotence. It’s a crude, oversimplification of human psychology, but threads from the critique find it’s way in Don’t Look Up. Part of the reason we’re ill-equipped to handle a cataclysmic event is we’re just too horny. What becomes noteworthy about Randall is his sex appeal, not his dire warning. Multiple characters attempt to kiss Kate in awkward situations, despite not being in a relationship with her. One character gets off on being told that the world is going to end.
A common expectation of a potential apocalypse is that humans will just find someone to have sex with in order to cope with the impending doom. The irony of it is that sex, biologically, is needed to grow the population, but in this context, it is purely for personal satisfaction. And it is the personal satisfaction that motivates the denial that a comet is going to crash into the planet. Despite all the science, a far-right slogan emerges in the film: DON’T LOOK UP, just as the title suggests. It is the summation of the refusal to engage with reality if it doesn’t aid in personal satisfaction. The slogan doesn’t even imply that the comet doesn’t exist; it’s an admission that the truth isn’t easy so we’d rather ignore it.
Much has been made about the film’s blunt use of satire, and the script is indeed very ham-fisted. But McKay sheds all subtlety because real-life has become so absurd that subtlety seems pointless. Don’t Look Up is a funny, well-acted, expertly shot slice of commentary that at times feels like a live-action South Park in its execution. The fact that McKay doesn’t handle the material with a feathery touch seems to be of little concern for him. The use of satire may not be particularly sophisticated here, but to obsess over this would be to miss the point. McKay wants you to laugh in the terror of a ridiculous, grim world that seems way too real, yet all some people want to remark in return is “Thanks for dressing up.”