[A review of writer/director Adam McKay’s new sci-fi farce, now streaming on Netflix.]
We may very well be in the last days of the American Republic. America has been dysfunctional and divided before (see: the Civil War; the Civil Rights Movement), but our current era of partisan rancor seems unprecedented. The internet promised to bring the sum total of human knowledge to our fingertips; instead, it has become a mechanism for disinformation and propaganda. The twenty-four-hour news cycle promised to keep us up-to-date on events around the world; instead, it’s a delivery system for partisan lies presented as mere opinion. The media used to be a tool (flawed, admittedly) that bolstered our democracy and enriched our lives. Now it is a weapon used by enemies foreign and domestic to mock the very idea of truth. The United States is still the world’s sole superpower, but we are no longer the “indispensable nation.” The advanced democracies of the world have ceased to look to us for leadership; now, they shake their heads in exasperation (when they’re not wincing with embarrassment) at our willful ignorance and jingoistic deference to the military-industrial complex.
Which brings us to writer/director Adam McKay. When he hasn’t been lampooning network news (Anchorman), stock car racing (Talladega Nights), or buddy cop films (The Other Guys), he’s been building a body of work that shines a (not too flattering) light on our sociopolitical zeitgeist. In 2015’s The Big Short, he dramatized the events leading to the financial crisis of 2007-8, and made us laugh despite ourselves. In 2018’s Vice, he examined the career of former Vice President Dick Cheney; part Rasputin, part Darth Vader, Cheney made a career as the snarling, scheming minion to Republican Presidents Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
Amazingly, McKay began work his latest film (streaming on Netflix) before the double-threat of a (very real) pandemic and (totally bogus) election fraud began to tear America apart. It’s clear in the finished product that McKay honed his script based on recent events, but he had already apparently spent years wondering, as many of us have, “What would it take to get us to pull together as a country?”
Ronald Reagan once famously mused, “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” (Reagan, it must be noted, was as starry-eyed optimist.)
But the Gipper could just as easily have been talking about an impending strike by a killer comet, which is where McKay takes up the baton in Don’t Look Up, spooling out events in the aftermath of the discovery by two astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy and PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (played by Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), of just such an object, that will—with 100% certainty—strike the earth in six and a half months.
Soon the hapless scientists, woefully inexperienced in explaining technical information to lay audiences, and unskilled in the arts of persuasion, are whisked into the Oval Office to brief President Orlean (Meryl Streep), a Palin-esque figure preoccupied with upcoming mid-terms and a sex-scandal involving her pick for a seat on the Supreme Court. Unimpressed and/or unwilling to accept that this new crisis could be true, Orlean and her administration (including her son and Chief of Staff Jason, played by Jonah Hill) try to stifle the news.
At the urging of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (which, as the film points out, is absolutely and unsettlingly a real-life organization), Mindy and Dibiasky go rogue, taking their story directly to the press. There, they are frustrated by superficial, chirpy, celebrity-obsessed hosts (represented with vacuous glee by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) who are too eager to go for the soundbite or the “Oh, snap!” moment to absorb the astronomers’ literally earth-shattering warnings. Over time, Dr. Mindy finds his sea legs in the unrelenting media spotlight, touted as the “sexy scientist”; meanwhile, Dibiasky is quickly memed in the misogynist social media as a shrill harpy (and it doesn’t help that, following scientific tradition, the killer comet bears her name). Inevitably, denialist backlash gains a foothold, and it’s not long before Orlean and her posse are holding massive rallies where voters are encouraged to wear trucker hats emblazoned with the new slogan: “Don’t Look Up.”
For supporting roles, McKay draws on the talents of half a dozen talented actors who normally carry films all on their own, including Timothée Chalamet as a skateboard stoner; Ron Perlman as a gung-ho, can-do military man who embodies over-confident American cluelessness; Mark Rylance as a mumbling Silicon Valley billionaire who wants to save the comet because it contains trillions of dollars of precious minerals; and a nearly unrecognizable Chris Evans in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo.
McKay’s films are also known for snappy dialogue with hit-or-miss jokes that come fast and furious, often nearly overlapping one another. Don’t Look Up is no exception, and pretty soon viewers may start asking themselves, “Are these people worth saving?” Of course, that’s the point: McKay’s mirror is so uncanny at times that, as the glowing doom grows bigger in the sky, this film feels more and more like a future documentary than a sci-fi farce. Ultimately, the story becomes less about the jokes and more about what it reveals of people’s priorities in the face of imminent death. And such revelations can be a real disappointment.