Directed by Adam McKay
Written by David Sirota and Adam McKay
There is a good movie—or maybe only an okay movie, though with this cast, it seems like just getting to "okay" would automatically kick it up to "good"—inside of Don't Look Up, incipient in its screenplay and almost present on screen. This movie would not be a comedy. But Don't Look Up is a comedy, theoretically, and a very zany one. It's the root of its problems, I think: it's a Saturday Night Live sketch about the Internet keeping anybody from noticing while a comet smashes into the Earth, ballooned to well over a feature's length (a stultifying 138 minutes), and nobody involved appears to have had any idea how to expand this five-minute sketch into an actual movie. That doesn't stop them from trying to do sketch comedy, so roughly every other scene, we're back to the bit, reviving the cartoonishly broad satire that is evidently the only reason the film exists, though almost literally none of it is good or funny. It jars terribly with the hushed, po-faced register that occupies the rest of the film—and it's even worse when they're both happening at once. The only unifying force attempting to tie it all together is a certain tone, an irritating smugness that's been its director and co-writer Adam McKay's brand since his Oscar-nominated YouTube video essay about the 2008 economic meltdown, The Big Short, which was at least decent for what it was. The jokey, fourth-wall-breaking didacticism that informed that film's style has been almost entirely tamped down here, in favor of embedding the lecture into a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily to its benefit, as all it means is that McKay's required zaniness must arise organically from the story, which it does, like schizophrenia.
So: Don't Look Up presents a comically extreme scenario in which an obvious problem bearing down on the world remains deliberately unsolved thanks to the social and intellectual limitations of the body politic of the United States. It could be about practically anything, then, but with a script written prior to 2020, the target was climate change; it actually winds up a bit more resonant in 2021, as the coronavirus, like this film's comet, is not nearly so nebulous a threat to an American's personal survival. Also like this film's comet, it's a threat that our science has developed a way to neutralize. As something you can see in real-time, both are things it should be seemingly impossible to deny the impact of, metaphorical or literal as the case may be—yet here we are. So this satire should work even better.
We begin with that comet. Discovered by a doctoral candidate in astronomy, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), she determines, with the aid of her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), that its orbit is in an intercept course with Earth. More specifically, the comet will plunge into the Pacific Ocean and kill pretty much everything, including us. Alongside NASA official Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), they bring this news to President Orlean (Meryl Streep), where they're strung along in a scene that would be the first to be cut if you were trying to get this to a responsible runtime, but they finally have a meeting with the President and her chief-of-staff/son Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), who promise some level of effort but very obviously don't take the problem or its messengers seriously. (Mindy doesn't even teach at Harvard or Yale, but the University of Michigan.)
Mindy and Dibiasky thus elect to take the matter public, but, for some reason choosing a gossip talk show hosted by plastic mannequin dipshits (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), this only succeeds in turning Dibiasky into a meme for feminine craziness, and Mindy into a "sexy astronomer" sensation, which seems like it should've counseled McKay and DiCaprio to tilt Mindy towards traditional DiCaprian sexiness, rather than towards sweaty schlubbery. Well, whatever: when a dumb scandal rocks the Orlean administration, the White House pivots toward the comet as a distraction, investing in a space fleet to deliver nukes to alter the comet's orbit; unfortunately, however, this means the real person in charge of the crisis is tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a combination of Elon Musk's futurism, Peter Thiel's politics, and the resources of a comic book supervillain. Isherwell's own astronomers have distinguished a motherlode of rare earth metals in the comet, and instead of firing his astronomers for being obviously wrong and fucking stupid, he pushes for a plan to bring the comet to Earth after all, albeit in slightly-more-easily-managed chunks. Mindy joins Isherwell's effort anyway, in the vain hope of being the voice of reason. Hopefully it spoils nothing to say that literally none of this works, and it was all our fault.
That's the basic thrust of Don't Look Up, anyhow, which posits that, while the world ends and capitalists profit, humans—well, Americans—will continue with their faces angled down towards their phones, frittering away their attention on cat videos and celebrities, such as are represented by the characters played by Ariana Grande and some other musician I've never heard of, whose romantic troubles are initially granted equal weight with an apocalyptic comet. It's worthwhile to point out that this doesn't even accord with what people are often actually doing with their faces buried in their phones; for example, there isn't any moment in Don't Look Up where someone goes on Twitter to accuse the comet of being racist for landing in the Southern Hemisphere. It basically hates people for being too stupid to comprehend real issues, which is largely-accurate, but it takes forever to get to an allegorical mode that seems to reflect in any sense the real world that we've been living in the past few years, and arrive at a point where it acknowledges that just because people are too stupid to understand doesn't mean that they don't care, and won't loudly insist on their own misunderstanding anyway.
Eventually, then, but only eventually, Don't Look Up has the ill-starred good luck to be the movie of its moment as America divides itself into people who believe the comet is deadly and those who don't, which is kind of bleakly funny, but also what I meant when I said up top this movie only had five minutes' worth of material. It's barely a sketch; it's more like a single-panel political cartoon. It doesn't have any real insight or, lacking that, satirical bite regarding the divisions between its reality-based community and its deniers. The film's general sheepishness and inconsistency can be summed up in having Meryl Streep play, essentially, Donald Trump, without any of his readily-parodied mannerisms, or even different mannerisms that would point in the direction of a narcissistic craziness, and so this may survive as the single greatest achievement of miscasting and poor direction of a great actor for this whole century. (Maybe it seems worse because she's joined by Jonah Hill playing Ivanka Trump and/or Jared Kushner as, effectively, just the most film-killingly, skin-crawlingly bad version of himself, the Improvisational Comic Actor, overriding whatever might've originally been in the screenplay that made these characters seem like they were written by people who actually beheld the Trump Administration, and not people born a thousand years from now who have only vague historical recollections. I mean, it's almost impossible to overstate the fascist glee with which a Trump administration would've welcomed the emergency powers that would come with a comet; at the very least, it would've made the Space Force seem less dumb. Given co-writer David Sirota's politics—and he's mainly a political guy, not a screenwriter—the initial goal was probably a Clinton/Trump amalgam, some kind of terrifying fascist neoliberal harpy. It doesn't come off: it's just Girl Trump, at which point you should just get Tina Fey to play Sarah Palin, for the Aughts nostalgia if nothing else. Don't Look Up, anyway, makes me nervous about and preemptively mortified for all the actual Trump movies we'll surely be getting.)
A littler problem, though it might be the one that grates on me the most, is that this is a movie that's basically a bullhorn to yell at you about how stupid you're being about climate change and/or covid (it's a bullhorn pointed at people that aren't being stupid about climate change and/or covid, of course), that is extremely, extraordinarily stupid in and of itself, almost to the point of being incoherent. It's straight-up baffling to me why a movie this intent on raging at the state of our reality becomes, shade by shade, a fanciful science-fantasy film, but it does. The honest answer is probably "in order for there to be a plot-driven story capable of occupying two or more hours," but Don't Look Up presents a world where a comet wouldn't even be a problem, managing to conjure not one but two American space fleets (plus a fucking ark ship with cryonic capsules!) from nothing in the span of six months, armed with (Christ) nanotechnology, and all of this is founded on misapprehensions of what comets are (not rocky objects) and what they're made of (not heavy metals). Someone screaming "trust science" at you should probably have, like, a basic understanding of science, shouldn't they? I'll also add that Isherwell's scheme is the exact plot of MST3K film Moon Zero Two, so exact that the rightsholders should perhaps consult an attorney. The main difference is Moon Zero Two was vastly more plausible. But it's dumb in tiny little ways too, like the astronomers being surprised by the moment when the comet would become visible to the naked eye, which they doubtless would've calculated months in advance. Then it's dumb in ways that swallow it up whole: for a dude with such a godlike, global perspective, you'd think that McKay would have caught himself before an hour and a half of his movie had elapsed, and anybody besides America gets to have an opinion about the world-killing comet.
The rather bigger problem is that this movie cannot find a groove to save its life, whipsawing between its expansive unfunny caricature (Ron Perlman's openly-bigoted space captain for a prime example, beginning his blast-off speech, "this is for all the white people,") and its attempts to ground all this nonsense in a psychological study of a pair of human protagonists thrown adrift in a sea of hostile morons. The problems of integrating these two things start almost immediately, and the foundational problems continue throughout: McKay, who has absolutely crafted good comedies in the past, apparently deliberately decided to forego the use of cinematic comedy's vocabulary here. Thus are we are flogged through long scenes filmed with the drab living death of a sour political procedural (at best like an Armando Iannucci project, which I still usually don't like). It's cut and photographed with docudrama aimlessness, and it doesn't matter if the given sequence deals with its characters' real feelings of hopelessness, or with a broadside parody of social media or legacy media or venal politicians; that aesthetic almost never varies. Everything about the chosen approach demands bounce and verve, and to the extent this screenplay could've been funny, it's because it's tapping into the boundless energy of cartoon idiots. Yet it's so slow and achy, bound to the rhythms of its co-protagonists, and that's absolutely fatal to a movie whose one single idea of how to be humorous is to out-stupid the society that produced it. And of course, without humor, what the fuck is all this?
It's hard to say who's least well-served here, DiCaprio or Lawrence: the script, especially early on, makes it seem like neither scientist has ever spoken to another human being before, so DiCaprio mumbles about numbers while Lawrence shrieks and cries. They obviously have more use for DiCaprio, but there's a cobbled-together uncertainty in his subplot, which ranges from on-air freakouts (including a bad knock-off of Network) to some adultery with Blanchett's talk show host that feels like it, too, has dropped in from outer space. Meanwhile, one might be forgiven for thinking that Lawrence doesn't really need to be in the movie in the first place, but they eventually find something small and halfway-useful for her to do alongside Timothee Chalamet (a slightly too-stupid teen stereotype, so that when he becomes the vehicle for McKay's friendly nod to religion as an emotional salve in a dying world, it still carries a certain sneering attitude). Even so, when the story finally brings the two scientists back together, it works surprisingly well as a quiet, mordant dramedy, allowing Don't Look Up to end fairly well. (Or climax well, I suppose: it has two post-credits scenes, and I turned it off after the first.) It's easy to say who's the best-served here: that's Rob Morgan, whose Dr. Oglethorpe isn't in the movie very much, probably to the benefit of his performance, but he's the only person in it that manages to figure out what to do with the bone-tired exhaustion of the film's tone, with his slow, resigned reads of what becomes a downright disproportionate number of the film's actually-funny laugh lines.
The nicest thing to say about it is that I liked it better than I thought I would: the trailer made it seem wall-to-wall obnoxious (so maybe "more energy" would have backfired anyway, though I stand by my point), and instead it's only obnoxious once every five minutes, alternating its irritating zaniness with not-all-there human drama and a creeping dullness. But at least it has good scenes, and I wouldn't have predicted that.