After switching focus from ridiculously quotable Will Ferrell vehicles, Adam McKay’s last couple of movies have pointed angry (but humorous fingers) at certain corrupt figures in our society. His latest, Don’t Look Up, pretty much does the same, but where The Big Short took overdue potshots at the events that led to the 2007 housing market crash and 2018’s Vice gave Dick Cheney the cinematic death stare, this time McKay takes aim at his most vapid target of all – us.
That’s right, by using the framework of your garden variety disaster movie and subverting the kind of behavior you would usually see in such movies such as The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon and Deep Impact, Don’t Look Up impressively keeps both feet on the ground while still managing to boot willful ignorance, greed and vapid lifestyle choices square in the goolies. But by making his audience the butt of the joke, has McKay ultimately outsmarted himself?
One lonely evening stationed at a telescope at Michigan State University, Kate Dibiasky makes a startling discovery: she manages to locate a brand new comet hurtling through the heavens just outside of Jupiter’s orbit. However, joy turns to panic when her professor, the jittery Dr Randall Mindy, calculates that the vast comet is, in fact, hurtling toward us with a mere six month window before it wipes out all life on Earth.
Alerting the proper authorities, Dibiasky and Mindy are whisked to the White House only to find that the “alleged” end of the world doesn’t rank higher on the President’s list of priorities than a recent sex scandal she has become embroiled in. Horrified at the epic levels of apathy their commander in chief gives the news, the head of NASA’s Planetary Defence Coordination Office (a real thing, apparently) suggest they leak the news and while this does eventually urge President Orlean into action, things continue to go rapidly, not to mention maddeningly, downhill.
Tasked to go on a media campaign to spread awareness, the panicking Mindy and the self destructing Dibiasky go on a hugely popular talk show to find no one wants to take the end of all civilisation as we know it seriously, not when social media’s most adored darlings are hoping to rekindle their vapid romance. Needless to say, Dibiasky goes into full, understandable meltdown while Mindy oddly finds his feet with the fame the comet bringing him upgrading his life exponentially. While Dibiasky’s rants reduce her to a living meme, Mindy flourishes and all the while the Doomsday clock ticks on – but after salvation may finally be at hand, the intervention of Peter Isherwell, a billionaire CEO of a tech company may yet spell disaster for us all.
When crafting a comedy that pokes (make that shivs) social conventions in the ribs and hints that our entire way of life is utterly absurd, it’s very easy to end up with a final product that might not be fully appreciated by audiences for years after its release. For every timeless classic like the terrifying farce of Dr. Strangelove, you get movies like Mars Attacks! and Idiocracy that are destined to be underground cult classics – in a way, I understand. No one really wants the film they’re watching to keep reminding them that they and their entire species have become a race of vapid Instagram posers, but if you can handle the joke of a movie showing you a fairground mirror reflection of how grotesque a lot of aspect of modern life has become, then Don’t Look Up has a lot going for it.
McKay’s targets are scatter shot and in some ways fairly obvious – can you even exaggerate American politics or social influencers anymore? – but among the monstrous cast of corrupt politicians, creepy billionaires, racist astronauts and toothy chat show hosts is a pertinent statement about how we as a species would handle the end of the world. Of course, Don’t Look Up is a fairly obvious statement on how many world leaders are dragging their heels on the climate change issue and how certain people react to the ones who are desperately trying to warn us – but it doesn’t make it any less pertinent.
McKay seems to specialize in dealing with comedies that anger just as much as they amuse and for all of its grossly exaggerated circumstances, there’s worryingly nothing here that feels that far fetched.
However, lump hammer satire aside, there’s a lot here that deals in a very Terry Gilliam-esque theme of rational people realising they’re living in an irrational world in which they seem like the crazy person and no one does this effect more than Jennifer Lawrence’s Kate Dibiasky. Deemed abrasive by social media simply for trying to get people to understand that a comet the size of Mount Everest is something worth noticing, Lawrence brings the same sort of volatile charm she displayed in Silver Linings Playbook to proceedings while Leonardo DiCaprio goes from panic attack prone to media darling as the fame the comet brings him States to erode his morals. Both are incendiary as they play simmering, terrified straight-men opposite a gaggle of all-star grotesqueries that include Meryl Streep’s dodgy President; Jonah Hill as her douchey son/chief of staff; Mark Rylance’s softly spoken, yet tyrannical CEO and Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry’s toothy chat show hosts, all of whom deliver hissable yet hilarious support.
However, if the satire isn’t you’re cup of tea, Don’t Look Up also doubles up as an endearingly sharp send up of Disaster Movies that overturns all the usual tropes to a nightmarish degree. The expert who usually eloquently explains the oncoming disaster is now a stuttering wreck; the decisive president who forges ahead to save the world is now an opportunistic egotist; the crusty war hero who is sent to save us begins his farewell speech by addressing only white people – and so on. In fact, when you compare it to films full of these impossibly capable people, Don’t Look Up gets even funnier when we realise how much we’d suck if this actually came to pass.
While the tone of humour tinged with cruel-edged nastiness may not be for someone looking for an easy laugh (and its certainly at least 20 minutes too long), with its brutal humor rubbing up against genuinely touching moments, Dont Look Up is a time reminder that as a species, we sometimes need to check our shit…