Are you ready for another apocalyptic film? If you have an unexplained urge to watch doomsday films in a time of COVID-19 doom and gloom, then Adam McKay’s new film, “Don’t Look Up,” might be something for you. Currently streaming on Netflix, “Don’t Look Up” tells the story of a comet that’s hurtling toward Earth. Or, to be more precise, the film tells a story of people’s reactions to the fact that unless the government does something about it, the comet will completely annihilate life on the blue planet.
The film features a great cast: Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky, an astronomer and a Ph.D. candidate in astronomy respectively, trying to convince the U.S. government and the world that something needs to be done about the comet. At first, U.S. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her administration don’t believe Mindy and Dibiasky. The initial meeting is pointless, and Streep comes across as a chain-smoking ditz, who is more afraid of sex scandals than the impending comet, which is supposed to hit in six months or so.
Mindy and Dibiasky are told to go on the show called “The Daily Rip,” hosted by Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchet) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) to discuss what exactly the comet means for the world population. The show, which most definitely evokes the potpourri of flatulence, turns out to be exactly that: nobody is taking the situation seriously, and they are more concerned whether Mindy and Dibiasky have any “media presence” than about whether they are experts in their field.
In fact, while Dibiasky keeps fighting the good fight, Mindy accepts the media title, “the sexiest scientist,” has an affair with Brie, and makes weak compromises with the Orlean Administration. The presidency appears to be controlled by special interests, notably Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a sociopathic tech billionaire who wants to mine the comet for rare minerals rather than engage in a deflection mission to save the planet.
In the meantime, people are more concerned with making videos and memes than with saving their lives. The hashtag “#lookup” starts to trend because this appears to be the only way the truth about the comet can be revealed. Mindy and Dibiasky are supposed to represent the heroes of the film but in the end, all they do is put on a concert during which Ariana Grande sings how we “fucked it all up,” that we should have been afraid, and that the end is nigh.
By contrast, Orlean and her moronic chief-of-staff son (Jonah Hill) hold a rally with their own version of hashtag politics—“#dontlookup.” She tells her supporters that there is no reason to be afraid, that the comet doesn’t even exist, all the while we witness a rather clumsy, painfully obvious, and misunderstood comparison to Trump and his supporters (they’re all “rednecks” as Orlean’s son calls them, wearing “Don’t Look Up” hats).
As all of this is going on, another actor makes a film called “Total Devastation,” and in an interview sports a pin that looks both up and down, because according to him, it represents how we are so polarized and cries out for unity. All true, but it also shows the uselessness of trying to cling to diametrically opposing opinions, which clearly does nothing but demonstrate contradiction and confusion.
As you might expect—spoiler alert—the comet comes, and destroys the planet. The “ruling class,” including Isherwell and Orlean, get themselves cryogenically frozen. They land on another planet 22,000 years later, emerging from the pods—a sight that looks like a saggy, Boomer nudist colony (Meryl Streep excluded!).
Although the film has many funny moments and demonstrates many uncomfortable truths, it devolves into a confused pastiche of different talking points about contemporary culture. McKay correctly and astutely observes the superficial nature of social media and human dependency on it. Every serious issue is relegated to “hashtag politics”: Real political action is not required, only the appearance that political leaders care about us.
Similarly, people are lost, and instead of demanding real results from their leaders they become part of the media machine. Mindy and Dibiasky are guilty of this as well because interaction with the media machine seems to be the only way to reach people. But which people? Americans only? Anyone who lives and breathes social media 24 hours a day, or considers it the main force behind living? Those who do not have actual jobs that require real work?
McKay says he meant the film to be an analogy for the climate change crisis. He admits that he lives in fear that the planet will cease to exist, and he wants people to wake up to the reality of that. If indeed McKay’s purpose “Don’t Look Up” is to raise awareness of climate change, then he has failed because the issue is not taken seriously enough. But if his intention had been to show the absurdity of our media-centered and superficial culture, then he could say he succeeded.
And given our current pandemic-induced totalitarianism and fear of just about everything, the ideas in “Don’t Look Up” could be applied into any situation. Orlean’s administration could be Biden’s, the celebrity-scientists in the film could be Anthony Fauci, and Mindy’s obscene but justified rant on national television could be about Biden’s failure to lead people out of the pandemic.
Everyone is biased toward his own position, and perhaps McKay intended to show that, but that might be a nebulous conclusion. He has made a comedy and a political satire that ends up getting in its own way, even though it had a lot of potential. “Don’t Look Up” gets lost in its own irony, and McKay as well as the actors are revealed to be part of the out-of-touch elitism that the film is attempting to satirize.