Don’t Look Up

dont look up

Some things are too big for most people to worry about. We’re all going to die at some point, but it’s possible to know that and still go about one’s day. If we were told, as the people of Earth are told in Don’t Look Up, that a comet will come and wipe us all out in half a year, what would we do? Writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short) thinks some of us would face it — few of us, really — but most would be short-circuited into denial or avoidance. It’d be too big to think about. But Don’t Look Up is more of a satire of the media presence and politics of recent years than a lampoon of humanity’s response as individual humans. Outside of a few flashes, the movie doesn’t deal much with how other countries, cultures, peoples are coping with the comet. The barbs fly mainly at America.

Two astronomers who aren’t especially media-ready — Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) — discover the comet and figure out its trajectory and ETA. The president (Meryl Streep) blows it off until she needs a wag-the-dog diversion, at which point we send up some nukes at the comet. Other complications happen; the administration privileges monetary gain over human life. Eventually everyone has to look up. The movie has become something of a flashpoint, though its buzz has faded in the last couple of weeks. Some viewers come away shocked, others get angry, and I’ll bet a good number have the same response I did: “Well, yeah. Of course.”

Of course talk shows would absorb and then dismiss an existential crisis, pivoting with relief to coverage of a breakup between two pop stars. Of course Americans would have a divided, largely unhelpful reaction to it. Of course politicians would lead from the polls instead of from their consciences. Of course our pop-culture-fixated, meme-addicted media would trivialize it, just as it trivializes anything else it touches. Anyone who’s endured the last two years and paid a modicum of attention will find very little in Don’t Look Up surprising or controversial. So it’s probably not going to change a lot of minds. The red-hat-wearing anti-vax contingent isn’t going to see a movie like this anyway, and if they do, they’ll fold their arms and turn to stone, letting the film’s appeals to rationality bounce off of them.

It’s well-made, to be sure, played just a hair shy of farce, and the large cast (including Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, and Jonah Hill) come to play. Ron Perlman makes the most out of his few minutes as a belligerent war veteran picked to lead the assault on the comet. Lawrence and DiCaprio yell and suffer a lot. Everyone is committed. But the satirical gunfire becomes scattershot. We are not, after all, culpable in the existence of the comet, the way it certainly can be argued we are culpable in the human impact on the climate, or culpable in the prolonging of the pandemic. The comet has nothing to do with us; we didn’t create this monster. McKay is more interested in showing how the responses to the crisis — the government’s, John and Jane Q. Public’s, but mostly the media’s — are dictated by fear or greed. Which is valid, I guess, but don’t stop the presses.

The problem with movies that satirize “the media” is that they manage to forget they’re part of “the media.” Would that be the same “media” that Adam McKay worked for weeks at the end of last year, angling for that Oscar? “The media” obligingly created a gotta-see-it buzz around Don’t Look Up, first around its stars and then around the “controversy” (as if anything in this polarized culture weren’t “controversial”). In making Dr. Strangelove, still the undisputed champ of American satirical cinema, Stanley Kubrick largely ignored what “the media” would say; he focused on the donut, the government, not the hole. McKay focuses on the hole, the media, and then decries the void.

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