A few years ago, in 2015, filmmaker Adam McKay released a movie called The Big Short, about the unsexy math nerds who predicted, in the early 2000s, the collapse of collateralized-debt-obligations “market” that caused the 2008 financial crisis. The movie focuses in part on their frustrations in being ignored, in some cases actively treated as literally insane, for trying to point out the huge problems with our economy and the crash that was inevitably coming, and soon.
It’s a funny film! But also an enraging one. Inherent in the satire McKay (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, The Other Guys) deploys is an exasperation with a media-driven reality of our culture: that, to quote my review of the movie, “much of what led to 2008… was happening right in front of our faces, but we were too distracted by celebrity gossip and the new iPhones to even notice.” The “arcane shenanigans of high finance” simply were not amusing enough to penetrate our collective awareness, even when they were fomenting an enormous disaster. Even when that disaster might have been avoided if only we could have been induced to pay attention.
But The Big Short came too late for anyone to do anything to stop a cave-in of the global economy. It came years after no one listened to those guys and the damage was done. What if — one can almost hear McKay thinking with Don’t Look Up — we had a movie about experts screaming about another looming disaster, one that will be much worse that collateralized debt obligations, yet one it’s not too late to address?
Directer and cowriter (with David Sirota, a journalist making his feature-film debut) McKay has practically remade The Big Short here, except it’s about global warming. (This film was conceived before the pandemic but it could easily be about COVID, too, which kinda cements the overarching case it presents.) But Don’t Look Up is even more blunt and more broad than Short was. Don’t Look Up is as subtle as a sledgehammer. Inherent in its premise seems to be that it has no choice but to be outrageous, because it’s the only way we’ll listen. It cannot afford to be subtle, because subtle doesn’t work, and the stakes are just too high.
And so we have two ordinary astronomers from an unfancy public university, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio: The Revenant, The Wolf of Wall Street), and his student, PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence: X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Red Sparrow), trying to convince the world that the comet she has just discovered will absolutely, positively smash into planet Earth in six months. It’s twice as big as the space rock that eliminated the dinosaurs, so, yeah, this is a problem. The situation is not totally hopeless, because there are mitigations that can be attempted, according to Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan: Greyhound, The Photograph), head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which is, the movie pauses to explain, “a real place”).
Small problem: no one seems to care. Not US President Orlean (Meryl Streep: Little Women, The Post), what with midterms coming up and a Supreme Court nominee to ram through. Not chipper TV morning “news” hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett: Mrs America, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry: Gone Girl, Star Trek), certainly not in the wake of the big breakup between a pop star and her rapper boyfriend that has the nation grieving. Not Adul Grelio (Tomer Sisley: We’re the Millers, The Nativity Story), a senior journalist at a major New York newspaper, because there might be one or two experts from completely unrelated fields who dispute Mindy and Dibiasky’s findings. Tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance: Ready Player One, Dunkirk) might be listening, but not for any good reason…
Don’t Look Up is almost obnoxious in the portrait of the world it paints for us… and yet it might as well be a documentary. A president who seems to have been elected because she’s a minor celebrity? (Blink and you miss it: Orlean has a Webby Award for her Best Short Film Series, called “Lady Biz,” on display in the Oval Office.) Whose idiot Large Adult Son (Jonah Hill: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, War Dogs) is her chief of staff? Is one of her top advisors Isherwell, whose vision for humanity is all about harnessing the mega-earning power of consumer algorithms, and whose idea of utopia is quite literally sterile? (Do not miss the mid-end-credits scene.) Are news outlets from supposedly serious journalistic endeavors to Internet gossip rags all about clickbait and “engagement across social media”? Does any action on impending doom depend on whether it is politically advantageous in the current election cycle? On whether it will be profitable in the next fiscal quarter to save civilization?
I laughed a lot while watching Don’t Look Up — I’ve seen it twice now — while also feeling sick to my stomach. None of this is even slightly exaggerated. We are all living in a world that is beyond satire… or, at least, no one has figured out what might constitute satire now. I’m not sure I’ve seen all of these interconnected issues all wrapped up in one nasty bow — one nasty blow — like this. Which is perhaps why this movie is so uncomfortable to watch.
Is this an elegant film? Is it art? Who the fuck cares? The real question is this: Is Don’t Look Up an example of one of its own LOLsob jokes, in how Dibiasky, flabbergasted and frustrated during her first media appearance to find that the urgency of her message is not being heard, goes viral, in a bad way, for screaming into the camera, “We’re all 100-percent for-sure gonna fucking die”! Because one of the motifs here is the impossibility, for Mindy and Dibiasky, of walking the fine line between being too sciencey, too mathy, too nuanced — which, as they discover, no one hears — or being too hysterical, even if panic is completely warranted, because then you don’t come across as a serious professional. Is Don’t Look Up an example of its own slam against us all, about how we might possibly consider a message important enough to pay attention to if a celebrity delivers it? Because in addition to the high-powered cast already mentioned — DiCaprio himself has been a vocal advocate for action on global warming for years — Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi (Bill & Ted Face the Music, Entourage) are here as the pop singer and rapper, Timothée Chalamet (Dune, Beautiful Boy) plays a charming dirtbag, Ron Perlman (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Book of Life) is an aggressively macho soldier, Melanie Lynskey (Sadie, XX) plays Mindy’s wife, and gonna-be-a-huge-star Himesh Patel (Yesterday; so, so good in Station Eleven) appears as Dibiasky’s boyfriend. Chris Evans (Free Guy, Knives Out) has an uncredited cameo as a himbo Hollywood movie star both-sidesing the comet. They’re all wonderful! Look at all the famous faces!
Like The Big Short, Don’t Look Up has knives out mostly for institutional villainy: disaster capitalism, bad journalism, and horse-race politics… including for how those negative adjectives are pretty much redundant nowadays. But it also has a compassionate soft spot for the realities of human psychology. We are social creatures for whom gossip is important, and for whom interpersonal matters are profoundly real. The film does not exclude its unequivocal heroes here: Mindy gets caught up in the media circus, even seems to have fun with it; Dibiasky repeatedly returns to a fixation on a perplexing but fundamentally unimportant encounter with a general at the White House; Oglethorpe is genuinely caught up in the pop star–rapper public romance. They’re all distracted even while fully aware of the gravity (pun intended) of what is happening.
Maybe that’s why we are so bad at dealing with the awful shit right in front of us. Maybe the tribalism manufactured by politicians and corporations is merely taking advantage of that tendency of ours to simply not want to look terrifying reality head-on and instead let ourselves be be pleasantly diverted by comforting nonsense.
I don’t know what the solution to that problem is. Don’t Look Up doesn’t know, either. But acknowledging you’ve got a problem is the first step, etc?