In the epic science fiction tradition, “Don’t Look Up” employs a disaster movie structure as a metaphor for a real-life catastrophe, with a massive comet rushing toward Earth serving as a stand-in for apathy to climate change. However, this star-studded, highly provocative comedy occasionally veers off course, diminishing its inherent features with its wide tone.
At its core, writer-director Adam McKay (who co-wrote the film with journalist/activist David Sirota) presents a sharp critique of current politics and the media, in which everyone is so myopic that they can’t see an existential threat. With a bury-your-head-in-the-sand mentality to oncoming disaster, the title represents the ultimate endpoint of that.
When astronomy professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) find a comet on its way to colliding with Earth in little over six months, they get a glimpse into the insanity.
Their discoveries reach the White House swiftly, where the president (Meryl Streep, whose character is hampered by her silliness) is too busy with her endangered Supreme Court nominee to focus on what Randall portrays as an extinction-level event. She concludes that they will “sit tight and examine” the situation after a pointless back-and-forth.
From there, “Don’t Look Up” takes off with a scathing indictment of everything about our media and political ecosystem, from the happy-talk news show (anchored by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, who stand out as particularly self-absorbed TV anchors) to websites obsessed with traffic and social-media memes.
McKay and Sirota make an astute observation about how quickly people (especially in the media) become distracted, focusing on Kate’s hair and clothes while disregarding the substance of her message.
However, the attempts to make that point range from a tech billionaire (Mark Rylance, with an out-of-this-world accent) who sees opportunities to profit from the comet’s natural resources to the president’s chief of staff (Jonah Hill), who can only see the threat in terms of how it might impact the midterm elections.
Despite this, “Don’t Look Up” continues getting diverted, thanks in part to casting celebrities in minor roles (see Timothée Chalamet’s late entry for no apparent reason) and chasing subplots that prolong the suspense over whether these flawed leaders can find the courage and sobriety to act.
Lawrence and DiCaprio (whose climate-change activism included creating the documentary “Ice on Fire”) are both excellent, but many of the other big names are mostly flashy and superfluous window decoration.
“The Big Short” and “Vice” are McKay’s most obvious forerunners in darkly satirizing large institutions, but the film also owes a debt to “Dr. Strangelove,” casting a wider net with greater (indeed, the highest) stakes. The title does a lot of heavy lifting, describing the general reaction to unfavorable news.
“Don’t Look Up,” as the title suggests, employs parody to spark a discussion about the dangers of ignoring a crisis until it’s too late. It’s a grim message, but one that comes crashing down on us via the lens of a shaky film.