If you thought the Biden era might at least deliver us from lazy anti-Trump comedy, Don’t Look Up will reassure you that no one gets off that easy.
It’s bad. It’s The 1975 featuring Greta Thunberg bad. It’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez exclaiming that the world will end in 12 years bad. (We’ve got nine left to go.) It’s Meghan Markle and the Harry formerly known as prince announcing, apropos of nothing, that they’re done having children because of climate change bad.
Don’t Look Up, which dropped on Netflix last week, had a lot going for it: The Big Short director Adam McKay, lead roles taken by Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence. Yet McKay manages to deliver nothing more than a derivative and meandering “satire” of capitalism, Donald Trump, and climate deniers that will be forgotten in less than six months — the time it will take, in the film, for a civilization-ending comet to decimate Earth.
The film begins when Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers evidence of impending doom. When she and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), rush to warn the president that Earth has six months before it’s destroyed by a comet, the president’s first response is to hold off on any action until after the midterm elections.
Meryl Streep stars as Trump stand-in President Orlean, with Jonah Hill as her son and chief of staff, a cross between Ivanka and Don Jr. After news of the comet gets out, Orlean rallies media support for her own plan through the “Patriot News Network,” warns her supporters that the scientists are merely drumming up fear, and advises them when the comet appears, “Don’t look up.”
The parallels between the film’s characters and Washington’s current (and recently ousted) cast are comically specific. President Orlean’s supporters wear MAGA-style hats, hold MAGA-style signs, and put their faith in an evil capitalist tech entrepreneur styled after Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or whichever billionaire Sen. Bernie Sanders is ranting about today.
Even the most positive of the critic reviews admits that the movie just isn’t great. “In the end, McKay isn't doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it,” admits New York Times critic Manohla Dargis.
Negative reviewers, too, are loath to admit that a movie with such virtuous intentions didn’t actually succeed. “And in criticizing this movie,” notes NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, “it is not that I'm criticizing the impulse to make a cathartic scream-cry of a movie about climate change because plenty of people feel that way, and I can't blame them.”
Don’t Look Up may have been intended to satirize man’s inaction in the face of climate change. But as a film about humanity’s response to a worldwide catastrophe, it feels more like a coronavirus film. So when Dr. Mindy sells out to the media circuit and the political and cultural benefits he gains from repeating the talking points of the current administration, he sounds a lot like a certain doctor who has frequently appeared on CNN, in children’s books, and on prayer candles over the last couple of years.
The film’s ultimate message about “listening to the science” comes off as entirely tone-deaf after nearly two years of people wearing masks outside, masking children, and cheerfully participating in hygiene theater for the sake of appeasing “experts” and political special interests. As children’s mental health has suffered, small businesses have closed, and seniors have died in isolation, “the scientists” have insisted on keeping the country shut down as long as possible no matter what the science says. Just as their judgment is finally being questioned in earnest, Don’t Look Up’s message is that the people (and of course the greedy capitalists) are wrong.
Don’t Look Up might get the Oscar nods it’s clearly aiming for just with its politics, but it’s unlikely to cause any change. Critiquing the “deplorables” who question catastrophic climate rhetoric and embracing the proposition that the world is about to end is always a great way to earn applause in Hollywood. But if McKay had really been interested in good satire, he wouldn’t have passed over the perpetrators of the crisis staring him right in the face.