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 message 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.

Speaking of distracting: the camera work, the shot selection… why? Many shots look like the action caught the operator by surprise, others lack any kind of subtlety, and others still feel like they’re allowed to play beyond the point where they should be cut away from. 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.

Unlike its real-world analog, Don’t Look Up‘s comet is 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 unhelpfully silly moments – such as MAGA types suddenly turning on their Trumpian overlords because they see objective truth with their own eyes – which cynically eat themselves all the way around to being harmfully idealistic. It’s not just that its ideas are too neat, or offer no commentary with their bite; this 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 “as a country, we need to stop arguing” cameo. In real life, the beloved Captain America star leveraged his superhuman celebrity magnanimity to launch 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 roast isn’t commentary – and in satire, the latter is kinda crucial.

McKay’s previous films shot their own ambitious shots better. The Big Short (2015), a biting commentary of the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis in the US in the first decade of this millennium, is similarly sprawling and far more experimental. Vice (2018) has all the cynicism it needs within its villainous protagonist, Dick Cheney, which allows – or necessitates – a bit more nuance in the film’s exploration of villainy itself. Both The Big Short and Vice manage to come together in ways Don’t Look Up does not, perhaps because their respective examinations of cause-and-effect aren’t diluted by allegory – or perhaps because they’re 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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