Don’t Look Up, from Vice/The Big Short director Adam McKay, is a well-intended satire, about how American politicians and tech titans wouldn’t be able to stop being venal and self-interested long enough to save themselves, even if there was a comet heading straight for Earth. Think Armageddon in the style of Veep.
While McKay, who began his career as a director of goofy comedies, like The Other Guys and Stepbrothers, still knows how to structure a joke, his sensibility often feels too dated for a cutting satire of modern media. Don’t Look Up is a strong idea (with story credit to McKay and journalist David Sirota), and lots of the individual jokes work, but at times it gets so caught up trying to make fun of so many different things that it seems to lack an internal logic. Satire in and of itself isn’t quite a story.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral student with severe art bangs who discovers a massive comet (a “planet killer,” as it’s described later) late one night while singing along to Wu-Tang during her shift manning the Subaru telescope. Dibiasky, who feels very much like a middle-aged white man’s idea of “cool hipster,” eventually alerts her advisor, Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a dowdy beard and enjoyably dorky Midwestern accent. Together they make the rounds, trying first to inform the government, then the public, all in an attempt to get someone to do something about it.
Their tour takes them first to Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which a title card informs us is a real office that actually exists. Rob Morgan plays Oglethorpe, an enjoyably idiosyncratic character who probably deserved more screen time than he gets.
McKay pulled this same sort of fourth-wall-breaking shtick in Vice and The Big Short, and I do enjoy it, within reason. It makes sense to be clear that the Planetary Defense Coordination Office is a real thing, because it sounds like something this kind of movie would invent (the Subaru Telescope is apparently real too, maybe that could’ve used a title card). The bigger issue in Don’t Look Up is that there’s a kind of dissonance between its extremely on-the-nose elements (aping the font and color schemes of MAGA hats and posters) and its unnecessarily fictionalized ones. In a scene in which a social media consultant discusses the engagement Mindy and Dibiaski received during a morning show segment, real social media platforms are all bowdlerized as “VroomVroom,” “Friendlink,” “Rabble,” and “Diddly,” in a way that feels almost deferentially courtly. Why not just say Facebook and Twitter? McKay doesn’t seem like a guy afraid of offending Mark Zuckerberg.
And again, those site names don’t really land as jokes, partly because they feel like parodies of sites from five or 10 years ago, not ones five or 10 years from now. For a director who clearly loves shooting montages of memes and tweets, McKay doesn’t seem to have that solid a grasp of what makes a great tweet or meme (in fairness he does do clickbait headline parody quite well).
By contrast, the hosts of the morning show on which Dr. Mindy and Dibiaski appear are played enjoyably, by Tyler Perry, who for all his corniness as a writer/director is still a pretty damned solid comedic actor, and Cate Blanchett, in a set of unnaturally white veneers and over-the-top TV makeup that somehow still make her look hot. She plays a sort of fake-dumb, cosmopolitan rich girl getting her bag on TV, as a satire of insert-Fox-News-blonde-here.
Meryl Streep is similarly great as President Orlean (a callback to her playing Susan Orlean in Adaptation?), a sort of careerist hybrid Trump/Kamala more worried about the midterms than she is about the impending apocalypse. Her chief of staff is her dopey son, played wonderfully by Jonah Hill in what feels like a combination of his Inside SoCal character from SNL (“Dad, it’s just a kicker”) and his own “clean and rad and powerful” emails.
Just when it seems like Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy have finally gotten the president to act, she gets sidetracked by Peter Isherwell, a robotic tech tycoon played by Mark Rylance in another solid turn, as a character who’s clearly a riff on Jeff Bezos, with shades of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. The whole story turns on this shift, from the president’s decision to go with Isherwell’s pie-in-the-sky plan to not just deflect the comet but get rich from it, rather than follow the recommendations of scientists. It’s the defining shift of the movie, and also kind of where it falls apart.
President Orlean becomes not just a careerist, but a pseudo-climate denier, with her new slogan, “Don’t Look Up” urging supporters to ignore the reality of the killer comet. It’s easy to see what point McKay is trying to say here, about leaders putting profits ahead of saving the planet and treating a global crisis as just another geopolitical game, but plot-wise it doesn’t quite track. Ariana Grande, playing a fictionalized version of herself, has a come-to-Jesus moment and tries to help get the public to care, releasing a song about how she wishes she’d listened to the scientists. Aside from her character being vaguely sketched, “science is real” feels like the kind of yard sign liberalism McKay is normally above. More broadly, individual characters’ motivations and story arcs get short shrift in favor of trying to lampoon as many things as possible.
The classic Hollywood idea was that a global crisis would force an end to our petty squabblings, as seen in movies like Armageddon and Independence Day. This was probably based on the general cultural takeaway from World War II, that when the chips were down, we’d eventually come together and kill the fascists. (“the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!'”)
Now that we’ve seen plenty of crises that seem to have the opposite effect, factionalizing the populace, polarizing our experience of objective reality and seemingly driving everyone insane, it has manifested in our fiction. Children of Men and The Leftovers saw its characters slide into magical thinking, hostility, and cultism in response to societal upheaval, borne out in real life with things like QAnon and people getting really into crystals.
Don’t Look Up clearly wants to be the comedic, more overtly satirical The Leftovers, but its satire is too backward looking. And whereas The Leftovers was always character-first, Don’t Look Up feels more like a series of sketches. Lots of those sketches are reasonably funny, but they don’t always maintain a consistent logic.