“Don’t Look Up” (2021) shows exactly why star power won’t save us

Released just in time to ruin Christmas evening to a lot of people, the latest Adam McKay movie (cinemas and Netflix) has been dividing audiences and critics. Interestingly, the strongest criticisms come from professional reviewers, who probably can’t swallow the application of McKay’s very personal irreverent and over-the-top satire to a super-serious topic like… the end of life on Earth?

McKay started as a comedy writer (in Saturday Night Live’s frat pack with Will Ferrell), and his first successful movies were big comedy hits. I very much liked Anchorman and The Other Guys (check them out). Then, he decided to turn his powers to observe and dissect society to try and achieve something else. The Big Short marked a major change: an entertaining, thought-provoking cynical look at society and its paradoxes. It had the gift of explaining something incredibly intricated like the stock market crash of 2008 in very easy terms, with a captivating, not-so-serious tone – and a lot of celebrities.

“Don’t Look Up” follows pretty much the same wave, with two major differences: it is much more ambitious (instead of explaining something that has happened, it tries to warn about something that could will happen); and it is inevitably one-sided: in telling the story, it clearly presents moral categories of good and evil. This means it can’t appeal to everybody. The movie can be satisfying: inspiring and infuriating at the same time (just as reality can be), but the necessary condition is that one embraces its basic ideological premise and worldwiew. Otherwise, it will just be infuriating. Another problem is that it delivers an important core message, but offers no solution. But more on that, later.

The story, in short: two astronomers (played by Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with earth. Their calculations show a probability of impact of “99.78%”, which in science means “as certain as you can be”, because no self-respecting scientist will use “one hundred percent” lightly. The hit will happen in 6 months and 14 days, just enough time to mobilize public opinion to try and do something. At first, they are ignored. Then they are swept away by a lethal combination of political small-time calculations, social media chaos, conspiracy theories, celebrity worship, and the two mantras that combined are deadly “tech will save us“, plus the late capitalism “profit at all costs”. Disaster inevitably follows.

A bit much. A bit too on-the-nose? Not subtle enough to be effective, as a satire? But is it satire, really? Because this feels like a documentary with some jokes edited in.

It is very hard to write biting social commentary in late 2021 – a year that started with an armed assault against the US Congress and only went downhill from there. A global pandemic rages on, mutation after mutation, and despite vaccines being widely available, people choose not to protect themselves. The necessity to contrast the climate crisis at the highest level is supported by all sorts of overwhelming evidence (almost total consensus: this is where the 99.78% sounds familiar), and yet governments and big businesses find every possible excuse to delay action. Some of the world leaders, the individuals invested with the power over our lives and deaths, are obviously unfit to rule – and yet there they are, mandate after mandate.

How to write something that addresses these issues without sounding too wild? How can fiction not be crazy, while reality has gone batshit insane?

I am sympathetic with the writer’s labor in this case. Right now we need fiction as a break from reality, not to feel (even) worse. That’s the reason Charlie Brooker stopped writing Black Mirror. But still, this is the challenge writers McKay and Sirota accepted when they took the job, so I will try to have a look at it, as objectively as I can.

The first thing that hits the eye is how incredibly packed with stars this movie is. A couple of supernova-level names like DiCaprio and Streep and then Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Ariana Grande, even Dune‘s protagonist Timothée Chalamet who plays almost a cameo. Character actors do a fantastic job, from Mark Rylance who after “Ready Player One” plays once again the super geek guru-type (except this time he doesn’t create a world, he destroys it)

and then Ron Perlman, to end with Jonah Hill who in my opinion is absolutely fantastic here, shining hotter than the titular comet in his role of the idiotic and self-centered presidential son (and chief of staff, because of course).

The chemistry among them is often excellent, so if nothing else, the entertainment is guaranteed by watching all these A-level performers throwing punches at each other, and obviously loving it.

About the story: the pace is high, and McKay’s bubbly stylings (snappy writing, jazzy soundtrack, ironic text overlays) managed to keep me engaged all the time. There is one major twist mid-second act, and then the plot rolls down towards the predictable, gloomy end – somehow still keeping a lighter tone. It is a comedy (well, of sorts).

But what’s probably more interesting is the writing meta-level. This is a satire, after all, so we should be discussing if and how the metaphorical level works. Does it surprise, or sting? Does it make us reflect? Does it inspire outrage, hope, or change?

And here the waters get a little muddier, in my opinion. Because the answer is “not really”. It’s a hit-and-miss, at best. The tone is on-the-nose and as blunt as it may be. Lawrence and DiCaprio deliver memorable lines about the absurdity of trying to communicate science to a perpetually (and artificially) distracted audience, and failing at it.

There is a huge comet headed towards the Earth. And the reason we know it, is because we saw it. We saw it with our own eyes using a telescope. We took a fucking picture of it! What other proof do we need?“, yells professor Mindy (DiCaprio), exasperated on live tv, finally losing it towards the end.

But these words will only reach those who are ready and willing to receive them. This passionate speech won’t convert anybody. Because of the same reason: it’s blunt and on the nose. The protagonists are presented as mild, reasonable, vulnerable but they are clearly posed against “the others”. The corrupt and the greedy, sure. But also the other “others”: those who don’t get it, who don’t want or can’t understand. So the story is presented as a one-sided morality tale, and as such, it loses its edge. And it knows it.

At one point, Meryl Streep’s president Orlean tells her voters at a rally: “they think they are better than you“. They means scientists and celebrities, sure, but it also means us (who are watching the movie). And… we do feel better than them, don’t we? Better than the idiots who are destroying the planet. This is a slippery slope. It widens a fracture, instead of fixing it. In comedy, this is a failure.

This could have been mitigated by creating a character “on the other side”, who could have provided the opposite point of view, helping the audience to identify with it, rather than dehumanize it. Why do a lot of people deny evidence? Why is it so hard to communicate? The problem is, such a device would require time to be developed properly, and with a cast so full of stars all elbowing for screen time, this would prove too difficult to achieve without spoiling what is, after all, a fast-paced comedy.

“The Big Short” managed to pull off a similar difficult trick because its protagonists were all flawed. Yes, they could see what was wrong in the financial system. But they were also big Wall Street sharks who profited enormously from the game they played. This is a very effective narrative choice, supported by the fact that the world of financial derivatives is by definition obscure, an “elsewhere”, for most of us. So the audience felt united when experiencing the story.

With “Don’t Look Up”, things are different. We have all skin in this game. Because this movie is not an allegory about a single, particular thing: it is about everything. It talks about our inability to connect as a society, how permanently distracted and fragmented we have become, how technology offers solutions but is also enslaving us, how grotesque and incompetent our leaders can be – and how in all this, nothing really seems to matter much. Lost in our petty concerns, like sharing an edgy meme to get some likes, we don’t address fundamental ideas like our own place in the cosmos, or even our own survival. All is lost in the background noise.

Once we expose this paradox, it’s basically impossible to find a way out. The pain is way too real, and no amount of satire acumen can fix this.

McKay seems lost in his own narrative maze, too. He exposes what he sees wrong with an honest heart and some powerful punches, but this is not exactly breaking news. We already know what is the problem. The thing is, we aren’t even trying to fix it.

An audience would need some epic call to action at this point, but we have already seen everything, heard everything. Carl Sagan – who is also referenced as a “patron saint” in the movie – opened the way in 1990 (“A Pale Blue Dot“: watch the video again, right now, just do it); Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth” followed (2006); then we had DiCaprio again with the excellent “Before the Flood” (2016). By now, the writing is on the wall.

McKay offers a lukewarm solution so at least the story doesn’t end on a completely desperate note of cosmic nihilism, but it’s a weak consolation: “family matters” (with a touch of Faith, capital F), and one can at least choose not to die alone. Uhm, thanks, I’ll think about it.

This movie is well packaged, entertaining and fun – but it is also depressing and infuriating. Because watching a Trump-like parody exposed as an ignorant, self-centered egomaniac can be pleasing, sure, but no parody can top the real guy and we are still recoiling from an overdose of that – worse, we know that the man won the elections once, and he may well again. And he is not the only one. No amount of self-reflection or well-meaning celebrity messages can solve this problem.

Ariana Grande’s lyrics “get your head out your ass and listen to the goddamn qualified scientists” are fresh, sure, but will they provoke anything else than 5 minutes of a self-righteousness chill in an already aware audience?

In conclusion – if you are a hardcore “don’t thread on me” fanatic, or you are intimately convinced that shopping on Amazon represents the peak of human existence, skip this movie, it will just upset you.

Otherwise, there is a good chance you will enjoy it. It’s a good entertainment product, well crafted and superbly acted. And make sure to watch the post-credits scenes: they are great.

Just don’t invest this movie with expectations it can’t live up to. It won’t save the world. For that, there is still a lot of work to do, and if we don’t do it, nothing (algorithm or person) will save us from ourselves.

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