Satire might not be impossible in a post-Trump existence, but Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up at the very least proves it’s going to be very difficult for storytellers to out-wacky the actual events we have lived through over the past couple of years, or spoof the absurd headlines that escaped the Hollywood studios and played out on our nightly news broadcasts. Politicians too concerned with the upcoming midterm elections to be bothered by news of an impending global crisis? Been there. A vapid citizenry more invested in the latest hot celebrity couple than they are in legitimate and disturbing warnings delivered by scientific experts? Done that.
Taking its cues from the European folk tale Chicken Little, Adam McKay sends two Midwestern astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) to Washington D.C. to warn the President of the United States (Meryl Streep) that a planet-killing asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. In pitting these analysts against an indifferent political administration and distracted media landscape, Adam McKay has recruited a constellation filled with Hollywood stars, but handed them a script containing precious few original insights, and even fewer laughs.
Don’t Look Up isn’t comedic. It’s realistic.
Maybe that was Adam McKay’s intent? While he absolutely has sharp, absurdist comedies such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step-Brothers on his resume, McKay has allowed his interests in politics and current events drive his most recent pictures. Films like Vice and The Big Short inform while they terrify, and when we’re laughing, it’s usually out of shock that factual events like a recession can be so ludicrous. McKay’s recent scripts excel when they figure out how to make the extreme seem palatable, cleverly asking Margot Robbie to explain risky sub-prime mortgages from a bubble bath, or getting the late Anthony Bourdain to clear up junk bonds with a seafood analogy.
Don’t Look Up lacks any such sugar to help its medicine go down, so the entire sit is a bitter, nasty pill. From the moment the asteroid is discovered by Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), the movie falls into a cynical and steady march towards oblivion. Almost every character introduced on screen is despicable, and they personify the easiest cliches. McKay takes aim at a million targets, most of them glaringly obvious, and the points raised by the increased stream of incompetence aren’t fresh and surprising – mainly because it feels like we’ve recently just lived through a Don’t Look Up Scenario of our own.
The Asteroid in Don’t Look Up is basically the pandemic. It’s too soon for that to be funny.
Don’t Look Up could have been McKay’s version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, meaning it’d have half a brain. McKay’s a noted advocate for climate change (alongside his leading man DiCaprio), and the two should boast more than enough collective knowledge about what is being done – or not being done – about the looming, lasting effects of global warming to aim a precise laser at the critics of science. But the asteroid in Don’t Look Up instead plays like a surrogate for COVID 19, and DiCaprio gets shaped into a stand-in for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the medical mouthpiece we turned to regularly for televised guidance from the White House press room in 2020 (which too many of us went on to ignore).
The situations that follow the announcement of the impending asteroid impact aren’t exaggerated because we saw them play out in real time, and the wounds inflicted by our government’s handling of the pandemic are too fresh to provide any real amusement. It should be ghastly to see politicians in a film gamble with our lives for the betterment of their party’s gain, or news anchors sexualizing scientists so as if to strip them of any credibility. Even when Mark Rylance enters the scene as a soulless amalgamation of Jeffrey Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, the impersonation and his actions barely cut deeper than an inch beneath the surface.
When Don’t Look Up finally finds genuine emotion, it's just in time for the movie to end.
What’s frustrating is that once Adam McKay has pushed every expected button pertaining to a blatant spoof of our ongoing resistance to facts and science, Don’t Look Up finally approaches something that the first two-thirds of the movie lacks and desperately needs: genuine human emotion. Fed up with the idiocy that’s suffocating all reason, Kate finds solace in a skate punk (a scene stealing Timothee Chalamet) who’s quietly a devout Catholic. And in the closing moments, Randall finds comfort in the company of his immediate family around a dinner table for a memorably sentimental scene. Don’t Look Up needed a lot more of that, because the rest of it is just a downer.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. He's frequently found on Twitter at @Sean_OConnell. ReelBlend cohost. A movie junkie who's Infatuated with comic-book films. Helped get the Snyder Cut released, then wrote a book about it.