Satire in film, in order to hit its mark, has to capture the zeitgeist. Think Dr. Strangelove, released at the height of the nuclear arms race. Or Network, when Americans were “mad as hell” over Watergate, inflation, conspiracies and foreign ownership, and TV was their main portal of rage.
Now — just in time for Christmas — along comes Adam McKay’s black comedy Don’t Look Up that somehow encapsulates everything gone hooey in the world today.
First, there’s an environmental catastrophe headed our way. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his astronomy PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) have just discovered a comet that’s headed straight for Earth in six months. And they can’t get anyone to listen, take it seriously, or even agree on the reality of its imminent arrival.
They show up on popular morning TV show The Daily Rip, where chatty hosts Jack and Brie (Tyler Perry and Kate Blanchett) refuse to get ruffled. “Can it maybe hit this one house off the coast of New Jersey, my ex-wife’s house? Can we make that happen?” jokes Jack, as Brie chuckles lightly and admonishes him.
Kate (JLaw at pinnacle outrage mode) loses it: “Are we not being clear here? The planet is about to be destroyed!”
Brie shrugs and smiles. “It’s just something we do around here, keep the bad news light.” Jack: “Right. Helps the medicine go down.”
Chicken Littles have no place in today’s “chillax” environment, it turns out. “The handsome astronomer can come back anytime,” says Brie once the interview’s done. “But the yelling lady? Not so much.”
And so it goes for mankind in Don’t Look Up, an allegorical disaster comedy in which nobody wants to hear the bad news.
It took a couple of years of political chaos, and then COVID, to bring ‘doomscrolling’ into our lexicon. Our ingestion of news has now made us impervious to shock and horror.
Yes, the planet faces a smackdown — a not-so-subtle metaphor for global warming and the natural disasters to come — but there’s even more zeitgeist under the hood here.
The all-star cast includes Meryl Streep as right-leaning, doom-denying President Jane Orlean and Jonah Hill as Jason, her weirdly Oedipal and materialistic son.
“What’s the ‘ask’ here?” Orlean demands, with a “bring it on” hand gesture, when the two freaked-out astronomers lay out the worst-case scenario. The scientists want the government to tell the truth and do something. No can do: “Nothing is ever 100 percent,” Orlean pooh-poohs. “Let’s just... sit tight and assess.”
Another zeitgeist target here is social media, and it takes weirdo tech guru Peter Isherwell (played by Mark Rylance like an Asperger’s-touched Andy Warhol under a sun lamp in Silicon Valley) to make it clear that we are even more effed than we think. Isherwell makes phones and algorithms that can monitor what you think, what you buy — even when and how you will die. Nothing about an impending cataclysm upsets him.
That’s because everything terrible has become normalized in our screen-addicted lives. It took a couple of years of political chaos, and then COVID, to bring “doomscrolling” into our lexicon. Our ingestion of news has now made us impervious to shock and horror. In our own way, we’ve created effective defense systems against truth and reality — most incoming stuff gets knocked out of sight, swiped left for good, sent down the memory hole. We just wait around for the “next” thing to turn up on our screens to distract us.
This becomes clear when the high-strung Kate’s televised warnings are met with vicious memes (“CRAZY! It’s all in the eyes!”), while her more mild-mannered fellow scientist Dr. Mindy is adored by social media (“Meow… me likey hunky star man,” reads one Tweet).
All this social commentary would just sound good on paper, if Don’t Look Up weren’t so well played and funny. There’s a fixed rule about satire, which is that it must make us laugh. Even if it’s crazed, hysterical laughter.
McKay says he lined up the stellar cast (first bagging JLaw) before the pandemic hit. As real-life events about masking and non-masking unfolded, the director says “I had to tweak everything to be 15 percent crazier than it was before.” He and co-writer David Sirota pack the 2:25 movie with sharp lines and memorable takedowns.
The one question we need to ask is: does a satire do enough in these divided, troubled times? In interviews, the makers expressed hope it would change just a small percentage of viewers’ opinions on the urgency of climate change.
There’s some of the bumbling, pitch-perfect hysteria of Dr. Strangelove in the way that Dr. Mindy and Kate go from patience to blistering contempt in a single heartbeat. (Kate yells, “You’re going to die! And you’re going to die! And you’re going to die…!” at an audience like a demented Oprah.) Then there’s Hill, playing the entitled, mom-fawning son of President Orlean. Hill says his inspiration for the character was “like if Fyre Festival were a person.” (At one point, sitting in the Oval Office, Jason suggests a prayer — not only for the planet and human race, but also to save “cool stuff, like dope apartments and watches.”)
Rob Morgan, playing the NASA scientist who actually believes Leo and Jlaw, adds a certain moral grounding to the movie, however sidelined, and small roles by Perry, Ariana Grande, Ron Perlman, Himesh Patel, Chris Evans and Timothée Chalamet all help hit the satirical mark.
The one question we need to ask is: does a satire do enough in these divided, troubled times? In interviews, the makers expressed hope it would change just a small percentage of viewers’ opinions on the urgency of climate change. Is that enough?
In some ways, Don’t Look Up falls prey to the very thing it targets for satire: people will gawk at all the celebrity casting, the interviews and Oscar talk. But will it change the trajectory of our blissful indifference to meaningful action? Will we just swipe left after a few chuckles?
Maybe. But McKay and his ensemble have made a movie that at least pinpoints the right things, the actual problems befuddling our modern world. And there is room in a 2:25 movie for a few crucial shifts in tone. The final scenes manage to be moving, despite the savage satire surrounding it. There’s a sense of the cleansing power of truth. By the third act, these humans with very human foibles realize that coming clean is their only salvation.
McKay adds another signature editing move from his other reality-based satires, The Big Short and Vice: the random cutaway, or what I call the “Meanwhile on earth…” montage. Cue quick cuts of nature, animals, people in isolation, or contemplating their screens, together and alone, drinking, eating, loving — along with frantic montages of social media chaos and frenzy.
“We really had everything,” Dr. Mindy says at one point, realizing what’s being lost. As good an epitaph for the human race as any.
Don’t Look Up premieres on Netflix Dec. 24.