A big cast, a few laughs, and one perfectly cynical ending.
Few of us seriously doubt that when the end of the world comes it will be due to the actions (or inactions) of human beings. Climate change. Nuclear war. Sentient robots tired of being kicked around by nerds from Boston Dynamics. We are going to be the authors of our own destruction. Still, while we wait for that to happen there remains the outside chance that an event wholly beyond our control just might get the opportunity to snuff us out first. If that’s not the starting point of a big, bold comedy feature then I don’t know what is, and it’s clear that writer/director Adam McKay agrees. Don’t Look Up starts a six-month timer on humankind’s existence, and a few laughs, a bunch of sad truths, and an overlong running time flow from there.
Astrophysics PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is eyeballing the sky one night when a previously unnoticed object catches her attention. It’s a comet, one several kilometers wide, and it’s heading our way. Her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), is initially ecstatic at the discovery, at least until the math makes it clear that it won’t be flying near the Earth — it’s going to hit the planet dead on. The pair pass the news up the scientific chain, but when President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) decides to sit on the information for political reasons, Dibiasky and Mindy go public on a popular morning talk show. Unfortunately, the superstar hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are equally irresponsible when it comes to important facts as they prefer to keep things light and celebrate the love life of pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande).
Things only get worse from there, as politics, ego, and utter fucking stupidity — the American cocktail of choice — lead humankind and all other life on Earth towards extinction.
Don’t Look Up is a big ensemble comedy with characters tethered together by a single fact but many truths. The fact is in regard to their collective imminent demise due to a “planet-killer” comet, but the truths… well that’s where things get complicated in the kinds of ways only human idiocy can devise. Politicians facing upcoming midterms like Orlean and her chief of staff/son Jason (Jonah Hill) see only opportunities to manipulate ignorant voters — their “Don’t Look Up” slogan suggesting Americans ignore the reality looming over them bears a passing resemblance to the bullshit marketing of a certain ex-president. A billionaire tech giant named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) sees the prospect for profit and an even deeper reach into consumers’ lives. Television hosts see ratings, pop stars see benefit concert material, and far too many people see nothing at all.
McKay initially found success with broad comedies — some of the funniest movies of the past two decades including Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010) — before shifting his attention towards satires with a heavy political angle. He’s been hit (The Big Short, 2015) and miss (Vice, 2018) on that front, and Don’t Look Up lands somewhere in between. While it was written before the current pandemic, its approach to an impending apocalypse feels every bit a result of today’s news. People ignoring science, corporations choosing profit over people, and government officials mishandling an emergency are nothing new, though, meaning that while the film’s beats feel of the time they’re actually pretty timeless.
At nearly two and half hours, though, Don’t Look Up feels anything but timeless. McKay’s script, and his penchant for allowing improvisation, results in a tone that wobbles throughout as the film’s more serious elements are sometimes undercut by gags and comedic observations. Worse, those latter beats grow repetitive over time as the same conclusions are hit again and again with the film’s targets — government, corporations, an easily and willfully misled populace. Where The Big Short actually serves to educate viewers alongside its laughs, absolutely none of this film’s information is new to anyone who’s paid even minor attention over the last few years or decades.
It’s not a complete loss on the non-comedic front, though, as a handful of scenes land with impact — less comet-sized than a solid punch to the gut, but still — including a terrific scene from DiCaprio that’s not shy about its Network (1976) influence. After being swept up in the media wave and public acclaim, Mindy finally sees the light, and DiCaprio’s invested intensity is immensely effective. This makes sense, both because he’s a terrific actor and because the film’s comet is a barely disguised metaphor for climate change which has been DiCaprio’s central social issue over the years. It’s a stern blip in a sea of absurdity and silliness, but DiCaprio does great work with both the dramatic and comedic material.
Lawrence is equally effective, and while it’s great to see her having fun on screen it’s even better having her back on screen period — it’s been a couple years since her last film and far longer since it’s appeared that she’s actually enjoying herself. It comes though in the character as she delivers a fun, smart, and spunky turn as a young woman who moves from the Oval Office to a back alley with Timothee Chalamet. Hill is having more evident fun insulting her and hitting on his own mom, and while it’s a wholly unchallenging role for him he manages the bulk of the film’s laughs. Streep and Blanchett are both terrific as unlikable, conniving, entertaining women, while Rylance seems stuck trying out dickish variations on his Ready Player One (2018) character. Other supporting players include a wacky Ron Perlman, a wonderfully sincere Melanie Lynskey, and Michael Chiklis as a Fox News-like personality.
It’s an undeniably appealing ensemble, and the combination of cast and material manage to keep the film somewhat engaging throughout, but Don’t Look Up still struggles to justify that running time. It’s not nearly as funny as it should be, nor is it as hard-hitting as it wants to be despite its commitment to ending on a cynical note. It may share shelf space with other satirical comedies, but its closest story relative — Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) — still feels millions of miles away. You’ll want to watch it once, but don’t expect to be revisiting McKay’s latest in six months, six years, or ever again.