Don’t Look Up has a limited theatrical release starting on Dec. 10 and will debut on Netflix Dec. 24.
In the 1998 Michael Bay film Armageddon, scientists discovered a massive asteroid on a collision course with Earth and the United States used all its might and ingenuity to recruit a team of heroic misfits to save the world. But after decades of inaction on climate change, a man-made threat that actually has the potential to destroy the planet, and the United States’ disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the jingoistic idealism behind Armageddon now feels like an utter fantasy. Adam McKay updates the script in Don’t Look Up, a brutally dark comedy about how greed, politics, and misinformation will doom us all.
The absolutely star-studded film starts with classic apocalyptic science fiction beats as Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy PhD student at Michigan State, excitedly shares her discovery of a new comet with her endearingly awkward professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). A teachable moment of calculating the comet’s trajectory turns alarming as they realize it’s going to collide with Earth in six months. After contacting NASA, they’re quickly whisked away to brief the president on their findings — and are absolutely appalled by her reaction.
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President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a leader in the mold of Donald Trump, concerned far more with optics than reality. She and her smarmy son/chief-of-staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) dismiss the science and promise to have people with Ivy League degrees look at it after the midterms. That surreal meeting is just the beginning of McKay’s takedown of the failings of all of America’s institutions, which at times barely feels like parody. McKay is no stranger to political films, having broken down the 2008 financial crisis in The Big Short and covered the career of Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice, and Don’t Look Up feels like a continuation of his work pointing out how we all suffer for the benefit of the few with wealth and power.
Dr. Mindy and Kate try to take their case to the press, but fail to gain enough traction with readers to continue the news cycle. Pleading her case on TV, Kate is branded as a hysterical Cassandra, though Mindy gets more time by charming talk show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). The astronomers and their allies have to desperately fight to maintain the attention of a public more interested in celebrity breakups, a plot driven by Ariana Grande who does a spectacular job in this plot as the pop star Riley Bina, seamlessly transitioning from talking about saving the manatees with youthful enthusiasm to viciously dismissing Mindy and Kate as old and out of touch.
Things get even more dire when Orlean mega donor and tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) gets involved in the situation. While he doesn’t channel specific aspects of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, Rylance somehow manages to embody the qualities they all share in the unsettlingly soft spoken Peter, who is utterly confident in his own power, possibly because his wealth and influence protects him from ever seeing any consequences from his failings. He’s an avatar for out-of-control capitalism: the tech bros who would rather put their faith in unproven tactics like carbon scrubbing and dimming the sun than make any real sacrifice and the oil companies that lie about the impact of climate change even as they invest in the technology needed to capitalize on melting Arctic ice.
So many beats of the movie feel horrifyingly real, like the head of NASA being an anesthesiologist political appointee, or Kate’s parents dismissing her attempts to explain her findings by saying “We don’t want to talk politics.” Even with all of Don’t Look Up’s veers into absurdism, it’s almost too dark, asking if it’s enough to try even if you fail to actually make a difference.
It’s also overly long, drifting into tangents that just seem to wallow in nihilism while other times making all too abrupt shifts in the main plot. McKay also employs some distinctively jarring film techniques like fourth wall breaking supertext and having the camera zoom in on inanimate objects as if it’s grown bored with the conversation happening between the film’s immensely talented cast. McKay also splices in plenty of stock nature video, unnecessarily showing what’s at stake in a story that would be better off more centered on its characters.