Review: Don’t Look Up (2021)

Don't Look Up (2021) Don't Look Up (2021)

Is it a satire if it talks a lot, but doesn’t say much?

There’s a lot to say about the US’s response to the climate crisis. Don’t Look Up takes aim at so many things, and misses most of them. At times, it’s as wacky and scary as it intends to be, and some of its ideas (such as the reason why the US response in this film suddenly, literally, U-turns) are even inspired; but it’s just as frequently off-target in ways that are thoughtless, even reckless, given the unique opportunity that a movie with such a stellar cast has for its important topic to reach a wider audience.

There’s “and Meryl Streep” playing the bloody president, Jennifer Lawrence in her first movie in years, and a Wolf of Wall Street reunion of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Timothée Chalamet is just perfect as an edge-lord teen, Mark Rylance is positively alien as a Bezos / Jobs / Zuckerberg type… though that character is a near-miss of an opportunity in itself. Many of the characterisations start off interestingly only to fall apart, but the performance which manages that is given by Leo, who starts at 8, and dials it up to 13. I get that his character is supposed to be tight-wound before things begin to really spiral, but he leaves himself nowhere to go but distracting.

The Don’t Look Up problem begins with its choice of a comet as a stand-in for climate change

Speaking of distracting: the camera work… why? Many shots look like the action caught the operator by surprise, while others lack any kind of subtlety. It’s an oddly apt… metaphor for? symptom of? the film overall.

The Don’t Look Up problem begins with its choice of a comet as a stand-in for climate change: that’s a single, measurable object, whose cause-and-effect can be clearly traced, and for which humankind is almost certainly not at all responsible. This limits the kinds of ramifications that can then be explored, which then leads to some really silly and unhelpful moments, such as MAGA types suddenly turning on their Trumpian overlords because they see objective truth with their own eyes. It’s not just that such an idea is too neat; it belies the insidious, complicated nature and function of conservative evangelism and disinformation – and of the myriad targets in the film’s crosshairs, oddly enough social media is not one of them.

A microcosm of the Don’t Look Up problem can be found in the Chris Evans cameo. In real life, Chris Evans launched an interview series which literally “both-sides”ed American political figures, even as the country’s Republican party was devolving into an authoritarian disinformation grift, and its Democratic party has since proven ineffectual at (and arguably largely unconcerned with) substantive correction. Does Don’t Look Up understand the potential harm of purported liberals failing to hold systemic saboteurs to account? It’s not clear if Evans, or the film, is aware that a nod to something isn’t the same as a comment on it – and in satire, commentary is kinda crucial.

McKay’s previous film, The Big Short (2015), is similarly sprawling and far more experimental in its own commentary (in the case of that film, it portrays the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis in the US in the first decade of this millennium). Yet somehow, The Big Short manages to come together in ways Don’t Look Up does not, perhaps because its examination of cause-and-effect isn’t diluted by allegory – or perhaps because it’s just better written. Don’t Look Up talks a lot, but what is it actually saying?

Further Viewing

Climate change “is a diffuse [and] slow-moving threat”, with environmental effects “that people don’t necessarily directly connect to climate change”: Pop Culture Happy Hour identifies, and digs deeper into, many of the off-target shots taken in Don’t Look Up (via NPR):

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