Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’

by Koom Kankesan


Don’t Look Up rustles up an impressive cast list that doesn’t always come together in terms of character chemistry or sustained impact. However, it is quite funny in many of its bits. It posits the scenario of a large asteroid colliding with Earth and humankind’s utter inability to meaningfully deal with the extinction-level scenario. As a commentary upon American politics and media, it has nothing new to say but as a proto-commentary on North America’s response to Covid, the film inadvertently hints at some tantalizing possibilities.

Don’t Look Up is an ensemble film directed and co-written by Adam McKay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry and others. DiCaprio and Lawrence are cast as an astronomy professor and his doctoral student who discover a large asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and will undoubtedly wipe out most of its inhabitants. Over the next months, the duo try to raise awareness after the White House (Streep plays the president and Jonah Hill plays her son and chief advisor) decides not to take them seriously. This involves going onto a popular talk show featuring glib hosts played by Blanchett and Perry whose vacuous personas don’t respond to the seriousness of the situation, leading Lawrence’s character to storm off after screaming at them. DiCaprio’s stuffy nervous professor, on the other hand, becomes sidetracked after exposure to the media machine, leading to an ill advised affair with Blanchett’s character.

McKay is an unusual director in that the first half of his career is securely planted in the world of comedy. A stint as head writer on SNL led to fruitful film collaborations with Will Ferrell. However, McKay has tried to reposition himself as a political commentator and his 2015 film The Big Short (about the financial crisis in 2008) went far towards achieving that goal. If you look at that film, it’s impossible to view that as a straightforward film dealing with economics (its acerbic tone and breaks from the conventional docudrama style seem more in line with McKay’s current film) and as a result, it’s hard to know what McKay really wants out of his films. He’s not the first director to change sensibilities but he doesn’t have the patience for more serious, meditative films. He wants to be seen as simultaneously both smart and funny, never really planting his feet in either camp. On the one hand, this could be a recipe for success among millennials who don’t want the same sensibilities in their films as previous generations. On the other, the result is that this film doesn’t achieve the durability (or timelessness) of other wickedly funny satires like Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog.

There are many funny moments in the film and I laughed out loud (for this reason alone, this film should be a palpable hit on Netflix where it is currently available) but it’s not a film I thought much about afterwards or really desired to see again. The film is best when going for humour – Hill and Streep bring their impeccable delivery and timing to their characters, Lawrence is always funny when she’s in pissed/affronted mode, Mark Rylance is a delight who should be more of a household name, and DiCaprio is playing against type as a nebbish who’s seduced by the glamour of the media spotlight. The drama doesn’t land as well because the characters and their relationships aren’t really given time to grow, develop, and solidify. Jennifer Lawrence is at the centre of the film but after she storms off the chat show, her character gets lost in the maelstrom. Neither her relationship with her boyfriend at the beginning of the film or with Chalamet’s character towards the end seem solid or believable. DiCaprio’s character loses his way but it doesn’t feel particularly authentic when he finds it again.

This is the kind of SNL humour which leads to a film that’s a melange of funny bits rather than a sustained arc. When characters do get upset, it’s treated as a quick flash of humour rather than an emotionally cogent point in the story. Relationships exist without really having any meaningful consequence – case in point: Hill being in love with Streep without anyone actually acknowledging it – and the humour ends up being throwaway humour as opposed to the kind of ironic, deeper humour that bends plotting and characterization around it. I’d love to see a movie where Lawrence and Hill lift their dynamic out of this mess and do a very bleak rom-com or something – there’s just too much talent and potential here to throw away on such fleeting moments. Streep’s president is quite funny but her politics are never really cemented (at one point, we see a photo in her office of her hugging Bill Clinton but she has the insensitive views and delivery of a Donald Trump, although I suppose that could be most of Adam McKay’s characters) – watch out for her lower back tattoo which can be glimpsed towards the end of the movie.

The thing I find most interesting about Don’t Look Up is its analogy for the North American response to the Covid crisis. It seems obvious, especially when viewing the political, media, and societal response to the impending meteor, that McKay wants to comment on our response to Covid but felt he couldn’t do that outright. That would probably be box office poison as people want escape, not reminders of the reality we’re all grappling with. During the film, when we see the stock market ballooning despite imminent doom, big tech and social media plotting how they can take advantage of the crisis, and the discourse around conspiracy theories and questioning whether people actually will die, it’s hard not to line the frenzy and anxiety up with that exhibited during pandemic times. However, even this most interesting and deeper resonance in the movie isn’t developed or played out – as with everything else in the film, there are no real answers or resolutions save that which the meteor brings.

As I write this, businesses and other facilities have been restricted to 50% capacity in my province. The neighbouring province, Quebec, has completely shut down in response to Omicron and the rapidly escalating case numbers. We may very well be following suit by the time you read this review. Professional psychologists are saying on the news that people may be so fatigued and wearied from attempting to curb Covid and not getting anywhere that they are ready to give up and give in to despair. This is perhaps the major difference between Covid and the impending collision of a meteor that will lead to mass extinction. The meteor is swift, decisive, and final and that makes for a convenient disaster scenario that can be played through the tools available under CGI. We, on the other hand, are grappling with uncertainty and the messy unmanageable vectors that plague every single day-to-day decision whether that be: should we visit relatives for the holidays, should we keep our schools open, is it too soon to mass deploy the booster shot, can I brave the Boxing Day crowds to shop in person for the first time in many months, etc.? Is attending the movies so that I can review this one a wise choice? Whatever the answers, it’s probably certain that we’ll be living with the repercussions of Covid for a long time now; it’s just beginning to sink in that we might not be able to escape its pull in 2022. And for that reason, we really do need a film that addresses the urgency of Covid, the modern predicament, and offers us some hope and reassurance for the path ahead. This is perhaps the most pressing existential dilemma of our recent history (not counting all the societal struggles that have existed for much longer) and we need a work that tackles it head on.

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