Don’t Look Up movie review: is the sky falling?

part of my On Netflix Globally series
MaryAnn’s quick take: I laughed a lot while also feeling sick to my stomach. As subtle as a sledgehammer, almost obnoxious... and yet it might as well be a documentary. Is it elegant? Is it art? Who the fuck cares?
I’m “biast” (pro): mostly like Adam McKay’s brand of satire; love the cast; incredibly worried about global warming
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.

When doing a science gives you bad news…

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”).

Don't Look Up
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office is definitely 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?

Don't Look Up Cate Blanchett Tyler Perry
Journo Barbie and Journo Brad are here with today’s headlines.

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!

Don't Look Up Rob Morgan
If you think there’s no Planet B, you’re probably not a tech billionaire with your own fleet of penis rockets.

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.

Don't Look Up Jennifer Lawrence Leonardo DiCaprio Timothee Chalamet
Huh. Turns out supermarkets won’t get picked clean when there’s just no hope of surviving the looming apocalypse.

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?

more films like this:
Silent Night [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | HBO Max]

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Sat, Jan 15, 2022 3:27am

I’m scared to watch this because I know it will be intensely frustrating. Our social institutions are set up in a way to reward people whose entire identity is based on their position within a standard socioeconomic hierarchy. In other words, the people that climb the ladder (or more often than not, the people born on the highest rungs with surplus vertical inertia) are the ones whose value system is defined by the existence and height of the ladder.

For people with these values, widening inequality is a huge positive, as it makes the height of their own rung all the more impressive and awe-inspiring. Climate change, and the eventual economic and environmental fallout, are not frightening to these elites because it will increase the social distance between them and the struggling, starving masses. I’ve come to accept that with a few exceptions, the wealthy and powerful people of the world want climate change to happen and have nurtured a world of adolescent-minded, quick-fix, instant gratification adults to ensure that it cannot be stopped.

A few of them realize that when everything goes to shit, their businesses will fail, and their profits will decrease, but most don’t even care about that, because their absolute wealth will always grow and even more importantly, their relative wealth and status will increase as natural resources become scarce and more and more real estate becomes uninhabitable. On the media side of things, drama, tragedy, scarcity, conflict and disaster are literally the business model, so of course it’s in their best interest for climate change to barrel forward at ludicrous speed.

What I’m saying is, we’re fucked. There are no solutions other than the massive reduction in population that will inevitably result from the ensuing political chaos in poor countries and lower birth rates in wealthy ones. That, or “benevolent” Chinese world dictatorship, and I sure hope things never get quite that dystopian in my life. On the plus side, us middle-aged, middle-class Gen Xers can keep doing what we do best, and sit back while we watch the world burn from a comfy retirement couch.

It is a bit sad that we couldn’t get our shit together in time to fix this totally fixable problem. However on the plus side, the planet will be just fine no matter how stupid we are, Bezos and co. will still be joyriding penis rockets to their moon McMansions, and I have very high hopes for the race of hyper-intelligent squirrel-rat hybrids I’ve been genetically engineering in my garage.

reply to  amanohyo
Fri, Jan 14, 2022 11:49pm

I enjoyed your diatribe. We are, indeed, quite likely fucked.

reply to  amanohyo
Fri, Jan 14, 2022 11:49pm

I enjoyed your diatribe. We are, indeed, quite likely fucked.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 1:39am

What I’m saying is, we’re fucked. There are no solutions other than the massive reduction in population

This isn’t true. There are plenty of things we could be doing now, but they would require a massive collective consciousness shift. That’s not impossible: it has happened before, as when the US shifted from a peacetime economy to a war footing in mere months in 1942. We need something on that scale again. Giving up is not, cannot be an option.

On the plus side, us middle-aged, middle-class Gen Xers can keep doing what we do best, and sit back while we watch the world burn from a comfy retirement couch.

Alas for me, I am not going to have a comfy retirement, or any retirement. So I’ll be one of the old ladies out there protesting or doing whatever job I can do for the green effort. Whatever the eco equivalent of Rosie the Riveter is.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 4:00am

I’m happy you’re somehow staying optimistic. After seeing how the world is handling the much, much more minor and manageable coronavirus crisis, my confidence in humanity (and human governments in particular) is at an all time low. Don’t get me wrong, my carbon footprint is teensy tiny, and I support green movements as best I can, but more out of principle and personal integrity than any belief that it will halt the inevitable.

By the time the world decides to unify and mobilize WW2 style, I’m afraid it’ll be about twenty years too late. Still, we gotta fight the good fight and rage, rage – it’s all we can do.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 4:45pm

I wouldn’t say I’m exactly optimistic, but I’ve been convinced that giving in to despair and the “we’re fucked” attitude is a guarantee that that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That said, it is extremely difficult not to give in to despair. I cycle through it regularly. I’m about as green as a Westerner can be: I’m an urban dwelling childless person who doesn’t own a car. (I do eat meat, but minimally, and I’m trying to go as much with nonfactory farming, local providers who use regenerative, low-carbon farming methods as much as possible.) And I’m trying to use my small platform here to change minds, if that’s even possible.

If you haven’t read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, I highly recommend it. It is, like all of his near-future SF, optimistic within the bounds of realism. He doesn’t write utopias, but he has some very plausible ideas about how humanity can survive the next couple of centuries. And he spins them around characters we can truly get involved with.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 5:24pm

The thing is, personal actions are nearly meaningless in terms of directly affecting the overall problem. You can wash and recycle as many tins as you like, while Lufthansa and its subsidiaries run 18,000 empty flights this winter to keep its landing slots at various airports. (Which they tried to blame on EU rules, because populist BS is over there too.)
What’s needed, I think, is less action and more activism. Which the governments know, which is why they’re making it increasingly difficulty to do legally. All politicians of major parties will be just fine while the world burns around them. Their children? Someone else’s problem.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Jan 18, 2022 8:23pm

Yes to all this.

reply to  amanohyo
Fri, Feb 25, 2022 12:48pm

It has suddenly occurred to me for no particular reason that there is a third “solution” to increasing global temperatures: massive population reduction, painful radiation poisoning, and widespread cancer and infertility brought on by mutual annihilation followed by a long, cozy nuclear winter. This whole 80’s nostalgia craze has gone a bit too far. Yay, humanity!

In all seriousness, I know we aren’t exactly the greatest, most honorable peace-loving folks over in the West, but please, Russians and Chinese, at some point, overthrow your douchenozzle dictators before they cause the death of millions of people just to massage their wallets and aging egos. And for the love of all that is Holy and True, elect some more women into positions of power so these global dick-measuring murderthons are a little less frequent.

If anyone wants some background information about the conflict, this WION summary is great. Hang in there Ukrainians, Civil Wars are never pretty.

Tue, Feb 01, 2022 8:21am

While agreeing with your most of your analysis, this is one of the worst worded articles – on anything – I have ever read. It is just a hard slog.
Why all the f–king questions? Why all the questions? Why?
The listing of most of the actors, with their films placed in brackets, was not just an interruption of the flow of the writing, but an imposition on the meaning as well.
Please, devote more time to how you say what you want to say, otherwise your message will be lost. When that happens, then what is the point of communication?
What is the f—king point? What?
Please, go away and study the writing of others in your field.
I said earlier, “most of your analysis”, because I will never know what you said after “Chris Evans (Free Guy, Knives Out)” – and I no longer care.