Don't Look Up
Adam McKay’s latest is a jittery metaphor on our worrying approach to climate change
Adam McKay seems to have left behind his pure satire films the likes of Talladega Nights (2006) and Anchorman (2004) for the dark comedy and political commentary of The Big Short (2015), Succession (2018-), and Vice (2018). He seems to be challenging himself with his latest, however, which seeks a parallel between its fictional plot and the very real threat of climate change.
Don’t Look Up (2021) is a film that follows two astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his PhD student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence), who discover a planet-threatening comet is heading straight towards earth. However, they grow frustrated as their scientifically calculated doomsday prognosis falls on deaf ears from everyone ranging from the President of the United States (Meryl Streep) to TV hosts (Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett).
McKay has been perfecting a jolting editing style that helps him cut away to explain or simplify things for viewers in the likes of The Big Short and Vice. With Don’t Look Up, the premise is much simpler that the sub-mortgage lending crisis, yet McKay retains this distinct style. It helps give Don’t Look Up a steady rhythm, that cycles through the different frustrating scenarios his characters encounter. Certainly, we are shown how the comet’s danger is instantly seized upon the internet and polarized to a frustrating degree (“Jewish billionaires invented the comet to take away our guns!”), and how power and money can easily bend ears and tempt the brightest of minds. McKay has a blast in diagnosing the type of arguments that Trumpism unleashed throughout society at large, to the point that he perhaps becomes too enmeshed in crafting skits and examples of human stupidity that he forgets about his characters and plot.
Don’t Look Up might falter most when it twists itself around for the sake of a joke than its theme or story. Here, McKay might remind many of the more flashy and random moments of his Will Ferrell comedies, than the sharp and zingy jabs of Vice and The Big Short. As a result, Don’t Look Up can get a bit unfocused as it sprawls its story over one too many characters (Ariana Grande! Timothee Chalamet! Mark Rylance!). If anything, McKay is gifted with too starry a cast, so that he feels he must include every single one of them. This draws away from his main characters and lets them only shine in the briefest of moments.
It’s almost as if McKay is afraid that viewers will become bored and disenchanted with the downer message of impending doom, that he must throw bells and whistles to keep us sedated… except that is precisely what his film is criticizing. Don’t Look Up is able to regain its bearings with a deeper and more reflective finale, but you almost wish that those moments would have been more numerous in the film instead of another joke about social media and tech billionaires.
In the end, Don’t Look Up is an effective and enjoyable satire that in a non-too-subtle way warns us about our attitudes towards climate change. The film is able to properly hold up a mirror at how silly greed and easy media manipulation is drawing us astray. However, McKay might sacrifice substance in his film for a series of quick-edited (if funny) satirical skits that end up being a bit redundant half-way through. Individually these moments still show that McKay is an expert comedic director, but they risk distracting a viewership that should desperately have the urgency and simplicity of Don’t Look Up’s warning ingrained in them.