Film Review: “Don’t Look Up” — A Pitch-Dark Satire that Dares to be Impudently Pessimistic
By Daniel Gewertz
The knee-jerk, hateful reviews of Don’t Look Up possess comments so outsized, and so beside the point, that they bear a resemblance to the oblivious thinking of the movie’s anti-science ostriches.
Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett. On Netflix
Don’t Look Up is a clever, unapologetically brash satire about a future America so consumed with celebrity worship, brain-numbing infotainment, social media popularity, and political gamesmanship that it refuses to take the impending destruction of planet Earth seriously. We’re not talking climate change here, though the parallel is obvious. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) has irrefutable evidence that an unprecedentedly gigantic comet will wipe out Earth in precisely six months, 14 days. The chances of “planet extinction” are set at 99.78%.
“Call it 70% and let’s just move on,” says President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), who’s more bothered by the upcoming midterms and the unearthing of nude pics of her sexy boyfriend, a Supreme Court nominee.
Are you an unabashed pessimist about 21st-century America? Do you believe that we’ve reached a point that — to quote W.B. Yeats — “the center cannot hold”? And, most of all, are you in the apparent minority who understands that true satire is a purposeful exaggeration of reality? If so, I say just give this liberating, appropriately cynical, fitfully hilarious film a look.
Despite an abundance of cinematic virtues, Don’t Look Up has been met with more negative reviews than raves, and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 55%. Critics from all political segments of the mainstream media have joined the surprisingly ferocious attack on this expertly made comedy. The Wall Street Journal and Britain’s Guardian exhibited outright loathing; The Guardian‘s Charles Bramesco went so far as to complain that the movie might “drive away any [anti-science] partisans who still need to be won over,” as if the film were some sadly tone-deaf BBC News Hour segment.
The newspapers and websites most joined at the hip to the movie industry — from Variety to the Hollywood Reporter — were so venomous, it’s as if they believe this film is a danger to the American dynasty and their own jobs. The word smug crops up in nearly every pan. Is it a mere matter of blaming the messenger? And yet, this movie is hardest on political elites, tech billionaires, and mass and social media — not your average American. Perhaps the underlying belief is that rich movie actors have no right to rock their gravy boat.
The National Board of Review, meanwhile, named Don’t Look Up one of the top movies of 2021. The Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Movie Awards gave it best picture nominations.
To put it in terms of cinematic style: The critics cannot appreciate a star-laden, pitch-dark satire that dares to be impudently pessimistic in vision and big in execution. If this film had a slower pace, a smaller budget, and a less famous cast it likely wouldn’t have been as good, or as funny, but it might have received more positive reviews. The obvious comparison here is Idiocracy (2006), a far smaller, daffier film — and certainly one more prescient, since it was released 10 years before the arrival of the idiot Trump-train. But being a low-budget Mike Judge production — a niche film — it was less dangerous.
My guess is that Don’t Look Up‘s bitterly satiric stance threatens a middle-of-the road political complacency. It intimidates the reviewers’ apparent bedrock belief that our centrist, big-business establishment — be it left-leaning or right — will solve our real-life apocalypse movie: the global-warming disaster. That “profits over planet” mindset is a smugness that is killing us.
Admittedly, the satiric volume here — to use a Spinal Tap reference — is set at 11. But despite this volume, and a slightly excessive 2-1/4 hour length, Don’t Look Up is one of the best-executed comic movies in years. Its script bristles with witty, incisive details; its dramatic arc is effective. McKay is known for writing and directing The Big Short — one of the most lauded films of 2015 — as well as helming various funny but shallow comedies (Anchorman, The Other Guys). He had a ’90s stint as SNL’s head writer, not one of the show’s best eras. Broad sketch comedy may have paved the way for McKay, but rest assured: this film has some subtleties.
The first few scenes — depicting the discovery of the comet’s size and destructive course — are not played for laughs. Dr. Randall Mindy, a Michigan State University astronomy professor (DiCaprio), and his assistant, doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discover a comet of mind-blowing size that, according to repeated calculations, is headed straight for Earth. Their certainty and shock are well dramatized. The two scientists are soon whisked off to DC, and by the time we see them waiting outside the Oval Office, anxious to see the president of the United States, the film has set up a tension that is palpable.
And then, the satire hits. We’ve seen Streep portray quiet, dignified power before. This isn’t it. She plays this future POTUS as a shallow monster of self-satisfaction, surrounded by photos of herself arm-in-arm with Hollywood celebrities. In the Oval Office, her smug smile is ever ready to turn to bored irritation. What she pulls off here is a letter-perfect encapsulation of the rotting soul of America. But still, she’s funny. Her own son is her chief-of-staff, Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill has fun playing an asshole, but it’s the film’s lone one-note performance.)
As Dr. Mindy tries to tell the world of its impending destruction, DiCaprio portrays, at first, a collapse of composure — something that is seemingly the most deplorable sin in a media-ready society where a confident outer shell has vanquished our deeper understandings.
Dr. Mindy: “It will have the power of a billion Hiroshima bombs.”
Jason: “You’re breathing weird. It’s making me uncomfortable.”
DiCaprio’s character travels a plausible arc here: first, he devolves into panic; then, with media coaching, transforms into a smooth, fatherly TV science-guy while simultaneously entering the sexy highlife as the adulterous lover of America’s most watched news-magazine host (an astonishing Cate Blanchett.) And then, by film’s end, he has believably revivified his humanity. Lawrence’s Kate Dibiasky’s reactions to her plight — from tense to tumultuous to totally checked out — make similar sense. Despite the bigger-than-life satiric thrust, one is emotionally tied to the two main characters.
Blanchett’s part isn’t huge, but she’s still able to dig beneath the shell of a shallow media star. Brie is the sex-hungry host of The Daily Rip, a meretricious Good Morning, America–type show that has either replaced newscasts, or just murdered them in the ratings. She’s a slick, sinuous over-achiever, highly educated, utterly amoral. When faced with a potentially emotional situation — be it a new bedmate desiring some innocuous personal info, or a furious wife confronting the adulterous couple — Brie simply looks bored and asks if it is really necessary to “do” this part of the routine. Yet Blanchett is so alive to the moment she can perceptively mine a hidden ore of humanity, a long buried nugget. When Dr. Mindy and Brie part ways — and the doctor tells her he’d been close to feeling love for her — Blanchett’s Brie is visibly startled by the word “love”: a look of shocked wistfulness flits over her glossy countenance, as if she’d just remembered love as a concept hidden away in a childhood memory. And then her eyes dismiss the idea as sadly irrelevant, and she’s gone. It is the kind of subtlety that humanizes a wicked satire, but doesn’t defang it.
The character of Sir Peter Isherwell, the billionaire tech guru and essentially the world’s most powerful man, is also a gem. Mark Rylance plays him as a robotic Elon Musk/Mark Zuckerberg type. His god-like algorhythmic control is so great that he knows more about every human than they do about themselves — and also can predict the exact date and cause of each human’s eventual death. (That tidbit is used to hilarious effect in the closing scene featuring President Orlean.) When Dr. Mindy criticizes Isherwell’s plan to monetize the looming catastrophe — calling it the thinking of “a businessman” — the mogul goes berserk at the perceived mega-insult.
Ariana Grande, Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, and Melanie Lynskey are all excellent in this beautifully cast comedy.
In the end, the knee-jerk, hateful reviews of Don’t Look Up possess comments so outsized, and so beside the point, that they bear a resemblance to the oblivious thinking of the movie’s anti-science ostriches.
True satire is often deadly at the box office. Even a masterpiece like Alexander Payne’s 1999 Election lost money. Hollywood’s most common version — satire lite (a lightly scathing comedy with a happy ending) — is a far easier sell. It suggests to the viewer that heaven exists. But if the characters aren’t likable, the details not standard movie realism, the ending not cheery, the charges are often: How smug! How unrealistic! Don’t Look Up is intended as an active spin on reality, and not a charitable one. True satire is anti-romantic. It should come with a warning: cynicism, in the service of truth, is no sin. Is it possible, in 2022, to be cheered up by a good film about the bad end of the world? The thought that society sucks and then you die isn’t uplifting, true, but a smart film such as Don’t Look Up proves to the pessimists that we have company! We are not alone! We are not crazy! There are others like us on this Earth.
For 30 years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and movies for the Boston Herald, among other periodicals. More recently, he’s published personal essays, taught memoir writing, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was best known for his Elvis Presley imitation.