At one point late in the game for the unwieldy environmental satire Don’t Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay briefly sets aside the snarkiness and broadness and attempts to strike a note of awe. An enormous comet has appeared in the night sky, finally visible to the naked eye after having spent months heading straight for Earth. It’s a terrifying sight that carries a slice of beauty, a vision of approaching doom that — with an assist from a teary-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio — strives to stir a collective sense of wonder. And it nearly does. But it’s a moment like that which stands in pointed opposition to the abundance of social malaise being diagnosed in Don’t Look Up, a film set in a world where wonder is for dummies and collective unity is a joke. A pre-apocalyptic satire about mass-media cynicism, Big Tech corruption, general American stupidity and anything else McKay and his co-writer, David Sirota, can squeeze into their crowded fish barrel, the movie is also its own high-concept genre collision, jolting along by an end-of-days blockbuster like Armageddon but also swept up in a behind-the-scenes realpolitik farce like Dr. Strangelove.
Those are the daunting inspirations at least. It all begins with a Michigan State PhD candidate, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), peering into the heavens and making a startling astronomical discovery. Comet Dibiasky, as it will be known, is speeding toward Earth and will make impact in just over six months; given that the comet is roughly five to ten kilometers wide, it’s designated a “planet killer,” an extinction-level event waiting to happen. Dibiasky and her twitchy mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), report their findings to NASA and are promptly flown out to the White House, where their shock, pride and anxiety at being the bearers of such bad news are swiftly derailed by their utter disbelief at the corruption and incompetence that await them. McKay and Sirota serve up a smorgasbord of satirical jabs plucked from the political waste of the past four years and beyond: Oval Office nepotism, grossly unqualified Supreme Court picks, midterm election anxieties, war-room photo ops, sex scandals. The president, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), is a hack and a buffoon surrounded by many, none more poisonous than her high-ranking son, Jason (Jonah Hill). She wastes no time minimalizing and even flat-out ignoring the scientists’ findings, dismissing them as the latest of many exaggerated doomsday proclamations to cross her desk.
These scenes would be funnier if they were more incisively written (or at least more cleverly improvised), and also if the movie seemed to be actively critiquing rather than merely embodying the laziness of its targets. What if the world were ending and no one gave a damn, including most of the people in a position to actually do something about it? That’s been more or less the real decades-long story of climate change, which provided the original impetus for McKay’s satire. But that allegorical dimension has since been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic, whose rampant misinformation campaigns have caused hundreds of thousands of preventable human deaths.
The comet’s death toll is of course what spurs Dibiasky and Mindy to disregard the president’s confidentiality orders and take their story public. But the news and entertainment media, much like the government they ostensibly exist to cover and critique, turn out to be no more interested in the substance of what the scientists have to say. A well-matched Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play a couple of morning talk-show hosts who turn our heroes into inadvertent celebrities, though markedly different ones. While Mindy’s charming awkwardness quickly makes him “America’s sexiest scientist,” Dibiasky’s expletive-laced on-air meltdown makes her a figure of instant ridicule — the butt of a joke shared by millions of merry consumers who prefer to meme her while it all comes crumbling down. There’s an obvious strain of sexism in how Mindy and Dibiasky are received, and Don’t Look Up, again, has a way of subtly reinforcing what it’s ostensibly calling out. Both lead actors have set themselves up to play a couple of Midwestern nerds: DiCaprio with plaid shirts and a thick beard, Lawrence with red hair and nose piercings. But there’s something telling about the way Mindy is written as a social-media-thirst object, threatening his marriage (to his wife played by Melanie Lynskey), while Dibiasky gets insulted. It’s also telling that when Mindy gets his own expletive-laced on-air meltdown in the second act, reaching for a real Peter Finch in Network moment, it’s played for gravitas rather than ridicule.
That seems noteworthy because the unequal treatment of the sexes is hardly incidental to McKay’s project. It supplies Don’t Look Up with a satirical engine that becomes thin and spotty over time. The movie does try to right the balance too, partly through Streep’s blandly commander-in-chief, and more successfully via Blanchett’s anchor, who’s shown concealing her own impressive intellect behind a camera-ready mega-watt smile. It also helps that DiCaprio and Lawrence have solid lead-duo chemistry, forging an emotional connection born of mutual respect (even as Lawrence doesn’t fully get the layers to play as DiCaprio does). And you can’t help but feel for Mindy and Dibiasky, who are the canaries in this movie’s late-capitalist coal mine, two malfunctioning cogs in the mind-numbing machine that our 21st century society has become. Their gravest enemy is not the president so much as an Orwellian billionaire tech visionary (Mark Rylance), who dreams of global domination and gives off an obvious whiff of Bezos and Musk.
Rylance, as always, has his moments. But his character, scarily white teeth notwithstanding, exemplifies the fundamental toothlessness of a satire whose targets are somehow too specific to seem imaginative but also too vague to land a real blow. The fault is not McKay and Sirota’s alone. Watching Don’t Look Up, with its mix of occasional chuckles and scattershot non sequiturs, it’s hard not to start thinking and fearing for the long-term viability of the Hollywood media-political satire as a genre. Nothing about the foolishness and outrageousness of what the movie shows us can really compete with the horrors of our real-world American idiocracy. In Don’t Look Up, evil is finally too banal to be funny. Goodness, however, can still generate a shockwave of feeling, and the best moments here make the case for small, redemptive acts of decency in the face of the unthinkable. You leave wishing Rob Morgan’s NASA expert had more to do here besides stand in silent contempt of all the inanity swirling around him. And also maybe even wishing a little more of Timothée Chalamet as a sweetly sincere Christian skateboarder who glides his way into Dibiasky’s life. He shows up late, but he makes the end that much more of a mercy. Mixed between the general condescension, a deflating sense of energy and all the broad strokes, Don’t Look Up has its heart in the right place, yet it’s still simply a lumbering satire that ultimately trivializes itself.
Don’t Look Up is playing in Select Theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix on Dec. 22