Despite the best efforts of the film’s A-list cast, this lukewarm satire ultimately disappoints.
The director who brought us Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, Adam McKay is not known for his subtlety. But while over-the-top quirkiness helped these comedy classics attain cult status, it is all wrong for the director’s latest feature Don’t Look Up; a climate-change inspired satire that is not as funny as it should be or as smart as it thinks it is.
On face value, Don’t Look Up appears to have all the ingredients of a guaranteed hit with a sharp writing team, intriguing concept, and a more stacked cast than a Marvel movie. And after a limited theatrical run, the film swiftly reached number one upon its Netflix release. But as Adam Sandler can attest, success on the streaming platform does not always equate to quality.
Closer in tone to The Big Short or Vice than a Will Ferrell vehicle, Don’t Look Up tells the story of scientist dream team Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) who discover the existence of a giant comet on course for Earth. Estimated to be six months away, if not stopped the comet’s impact promises certain planetary destruction.
The stakes well and truly set, it’s up to Kate and Randall to save the world. Only one thing can stand in their way- the human race’s total unwillingness to pay attention to a bunch of boring scientists.
This aspect of the film is quite clever. It mirrors America’s real-world climate of anti-intellectualism while subverting the disaster movie trope in which the world turns to scientists at the hint of a crisis.
These scenes also apparently nailed the frustration of continually being ignored, with real-world climate scientists claiming to identify all too well with Don’t Look Up’s protagonists. But this one note joke can’t sustain an entire feature, and the latter half of the film collapses under the weight of about ten too many plot twists and tangents.
None of Don’t Look Up’s many flaws can be blamed on its exceptional cast. In addition to DiCaprio and Lawrence, supporting players including Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Timothee Chaemet, and even Meryl Streep are real highlights. The only mystery is why they signed on to such average material in the first place- though it’s possible at least dedicated environmentalist DiCaprio felt obligated to join in the spirit of climate activism.
That’s right- although climate change is never explicitly referenced, the story operates as a (very obvious) metaphor, with the threat of the comet standing in for the real-world threat of climate change.
Don’t Look Up was a film created to provoke thought and make a difference- a commendable goal for which McKay deserves credit. But unfortunately, he’s fallen far, far short of this lofty aim.
Described by viewers as “sanctimonious”, “laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed”, and simply, “A disastrous film;” Don’t Look Up’s environmental message could hardly have connected less with audiences if it tried.
Viewers can forgive a degree of preaching in movies- if we feel we’re learning something. But McKay’s attempts to educate often come across as condescending. The film’s attempt at political commentary falls similarly flat, with outdated references (it’s been over a year since Donald Trump was President; do we really need reminding that the former President is- wait for it- a bit of a dummy) mistaken for cutting edge satire.
One typically negative review of Don’t Look Up (the film’s critical reception has been mixed at best) concluded with the peculiar qualifier that “…if the movie helps to do something about climate change, such critical objections are unimportant.”
It’s a nice thought. But the reality is, movies can’t help to change anything if they fail to entertain and engage the audience. Satire doesn’t have the power to provoke thought unless it makes us laugh and watching a film about climate change that adds nothing to the conversation won’t make us care.
It’s possible Don’t Look Up would have been better received were it released ten, or even fifteen years ago. But today’s audiences are a lot savvier and more cynical than McKay gives them credit for. In 2021, satirizing the government’s environmental mismanagement is not cutting-edge observational comedy. It’s a depressing fact of life.
Shortly after the film’s release, Adam McKay took to Twitter with a passive aggressive “f*ck you” to Don’t Look Up’s critics that suggested the film’s poor reception was due to anti-environmental sentiment.
The tweet read: “Loving all the heated debate about our movie. But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense.”
Petty? Absolutely. But this self-important superiority also demonstrates exactly why McKay is the wrong filmmaker to take on the unfathomably complex, controversial, and momentous subject of climate change.
His snide assumption that anyone who disliked the film must be an unintelligent climate sceptic is not only ridiculous; it suggests that McKay would rather preach to the converted than make a film that might actually change the minds of viewers unconvinced of the threat of climate change.
Oh, and Adam? Rest assured that most of us have more than an “ember” of climate anxiety, and the ability to understand the painfully obvious message Don’t Look Up hammers home at every opportunity But in the words of one Twitter user, “It made sense. It’s just a sh*t movie.”
Verdict - 3/10