Don't Look Up

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A looming calamity threatens the entire world. A team of scientists alerts the President of the United States, who blows off the threat because it might negatively affect poll numbers. The scientists attempt to warn the public, a sizable portion of whom refuse to believe it's real because the president assures them it's a hoax. Proof is right there, yet these people simply won't accept it. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Director Adam McKay (The Big Short) draws from the headlines for his latest effort, the dark comedy Don't Look Up. Unfortunately, the old saying about how it takes a lot of talented people to make a really bad movie totally applies here.

Jennifer Lawrence plays PhD. candidate Kate Dibiasky. She discovers a ten-kilometer comet rocketing across the sky. Her astronomer supervisor, the Dr. Fauci-like Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), does the math and determines that it's on a collision course with Earth. When it hits, it will be an extinction-level event. Mankind will be gone. They struggle to get a meeting at the White House. When they finally do, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) doesn't take the matter seriously. She refuses to alert the public for fear that it will hurt her party in the upcoming midterms.

Kate and Dr. Mindy force the issue by going on a Morning Joe-like program to sound the alarm, but the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) downplay it too. After all, bad news bums people out and makes them turn off their televisions. Once Orlean finally does acknowledge the situation, she politicizes it during her rallies, so that her supporters begin rebelling against scientific fact. A “Don't look up” movement arises, with people vowing not to gaze into the sky. They use their refusal to see the comet with their own eyes as proof of its non-existence.

Other big names are in the cast, as well, including Timothee Chalamet as a skater dude who Kate befriends, Jonah Hill as Orlean's coattail-riding son, Mark Rylance as a spacy tech tycoon who claims to have a solution, and Ariana Grande as a pop singer whose recent breakup gets more press than the looming comet.

McKay has stated that he intended to satirize climate change denial with this film. I'm sure that's true, but it's clear he drew several specific ideas from the response to Covid-19, as well. There are several problems with that. First, who wants to see a movie about denial idiocy when we're still right in the middle of it? Maybe this would be funny with some distance, but it sure isn't funny when you can see such behavior on a daily basis. Second, the politicizing of Covid – from Trump dubbing it a “Democratic hoax” to the incomprehensible defiance of the anti-vaccine/anti-mask crowd – is already a joke, so there's no way to spoof that. Nothing the film comes up with is as absurd as what we've already seen.

Third, and perhaps most damaging, the movie has zero to say on the subject. It simply substitutes a looming comet for the virus, then depicts the mentality that has grown over the past two years. Is it beyond stupid that people decline to accept provable scientific fact? That they like being wrong? Yes, it is. No one needs this film to tell them that. If Don't Look Up had some insight into why certain factions of the public take this stance, it might have been different. Merely observing the behavior is not good satire.

With such misguided material, the cast has little to do but flounder. They either overact, as Blanchett and Perry do, or underact, as Hill does. (He's supposed to be a Don Jr. type, yet never reaches the right level of self-satisfied obnoxiousness the role would seem to require.) DiCaprio is the best of the bunch. He gets one really magnificent scene, a bit where Dr. Mindy breaks down on-air in a glorious Howard-Beale-in-Network kind of way. This is the best scene in the picture because, if nothing else, the character says what a lot of us are currently thinking, leading to a moment of catharsis.

A couple minor chuckles can be found along the way. Otherwise, Don't Look Up is an unfunny, needlessly overlong slog. (Seriously, it's almost two-and-a-half hours.) Finding the humor in science denial and choosing ignorance over fact is excessively difficult at this point in time. McKay would have been smart to sit on the idea for a few years, let his thoughts coagulate, and then make the movie as a reflection. Trying to comment on the state of affairs while they're still unfolding robs the story of any potential comedy value, rendering it an unpleasant, frustrating film to watch.

out of four

Don't Look Up is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, graphic nudity and drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 18 minutes.