Modern Satire | Don’t Look Up (2021) Review

Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep

This “review” contains immediate spoilers, so the short version is: do not recommend. The extra half-star is because it’s somewhat funny, and for DiCaprio’s performance, which is considered and against type, but still not enough to elevate the role to a character

Don’t Look Up has a dynamite setup, something so clean and simple it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before. In an interview with The New York Times, writer/director Adam McKay actually underplays its originality, referencing the “close the beaches” scenario of Jaws. Scientists discover a comet on trajectory to hit Earth in six months, and they undertake the simple task of warning people. As they’re doing so in the age of fake news and neoliberal governance, this task becomes absurd and, ultimately, impossible. Now, if I’d written Don’t Look Up, the comet wouldn’t have hit the Earth as it does. Instead, the corporate-driven mission to scatter the comet into profitable chunks would have succeeded (as perhaps, our own billionaires’ laughable space missions have succeeded), but the impacts would exacerbate existing global inequality. This is completely inappropriate for a movie review, but it speaks to a viewing mind in combat with the creator. This is a “smart” movie because it’s smarter than the people it’s satirizing. Is it smarter than me? Is McKay farther left than I, will he correctly punch down, will he make the right statement? “Hey, the problem with Elon Musk isn’t that his technology is bad, though that is a part of it,” and so on. Is this the point of the movie, to be right? To affirm one’s politics? Is this the point of movies in general?

By default, I do not like satire, because it’s so often animated by egotism and more pressingly, wreaks the most havoc on the existential question: What is the purpose of art? These satirical works which seem to engage with the here and now, which invite us to laugh as medicinal solution to social problems, they effect no change. Starship Troopers did not have some miracle impact on the military or how Americans view the military, in part because it’s so famously misunderstood. Even if it had been understood in its time, would the world be different now? It may sound silly to even ask these questions, as movies are primarily meant to move us; they’re in dialogue with our hearts, not our legislature. In the same interview, McKay is asked if his film is “fundamentally a climate-change allegory,” to which he replies, “That is kind of how it started. But then the pandemic hit.” The automatic framing around this movie, especially based on Adam McKay’s previous output, is that there’s some greater significance. Unfortunately, while speaking far clearer than Starship Troopers, it’s far, far lesser than a movie confident enough to also be thrilling entertainment.

McKay’s comment is telling, that the film began as one allegory and transformed to contain another. The confusion shows in its clipped affect, though the moments of coherence are worse. First, there’s the namesake of the film, the “Don’t Look Up” comet-denial movement. A response to “Just Look Up,” upon the meteor’s visibility in the sky late in the film, as in real life, this manipulation of an uncritical public toward profitable ends comes from the top down. But as allegory, it doesn’t track with even far-right logic. The Orlean administration can’t outright deny that the comet is coming, because it wants to mine the planet killer for resources. Like the anti-vaxx movement, I guess it’s about scoring political points or maintaining control over volatile constituents. This means we have two competing motivations: mining the meteor and reelection, and these are at odds.

Most concerning, there are two character beats that occur in close sequence: protagonist Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is confronted by his wife in a hotel room with the woman he’s having an affair with, and Dr. Randall Mindy sees the comet in the sky for the first time and has a profound emotional reaction. His arc had earlier turned on selling out, mistakenly agreeing that the profit-minded comet plan was better than nothing, so the logical next turn is he rejoins the effort now left to sympathetic Dr. Oglethorpe and Dr. Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). To play this game again, if you were the writer, which of these two narrative beats would you choose to set up Dr. Mindy’s return to science? The science one, and you’d cut the infidelity subplot altogether.

This is the social satire trying to express a moment of character-based sincerity, and then the next genre stumbles in: straight comedy. And honestly, while Don’t Look Up hits a solid rhythm of laughs, all of its worst tendencies climax in a scene depicting a benefit concert with characters played by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi. Stealing a page from the equally awkward The Good Fight, this sequence is so cringe-inducing I felt embarrassed for having seen it. On stage with light and fog, one of our preeminent idols croons with uncomfortable earnestness: “Look up, what he’s really trying to say / Is get your head out of your ass / Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists / We really fucked it up, fucked it up this time.” Going in, I assumed the joke was the benefit concert with a “preeminent idol” under meteoric threat, but given that it’s actually Ariana Grande, I think the joke was we got this 20 year old to say “fuck.”

Later, Dr. Oglethorpe receives a devastating phone call. Unbeknownst to us, India, Russia, and China had mounted an effort against the comet after losing the mining rights. Oglethorpe reports that this effort just now ended in the explosion of a space shuttle. He, Mindy, and Dibiasky stand around staring at each other in horror. We cut the scene in mid-“Fuck!” Apparently, this means that the Orlean strategy is all we have left, but until that scene, I thought that was the case anyway. We’d never even had a funny cutaway to one of those Asian countries. And God, really, then, what the hell was that Ariana Grande concert about? What were our scientist heroes even doing, what was their plan? The Wikipedia plot summary tells me they were using their hashtag to encourage countries like India, Russia, and China to conduct their own operations, but somehow that important plot detail sailed right over my head.

You realize the story setup of Don’t Look Up is one of those “brilliant in simplicity,” and one you then realize cannot possibly sustain a two-hour-plus runtime. The film becomes surprisingly unfocused and unclear, and sacrifices the structural discipline of revelation for the comedy of surprise. Throughout, I thought of two other movies, the original Robocop and Shin Godzilla. The former, Paul Verhoeven’s scifi masterpiece, manages to be thrilling like his Starship Troopers, genuinely affecting as a drama, and so incisive as satire it was prescient. Between the three movies, Don’t Look Up becomes a decidedly modern, decidedly American movie. It tries for satire and character both while at the same time appearing not to try at all, because trying is lame. On this, I thought of the detachment characteristic of student filmmakers I witnessed and worked with in high school and college, whose productions were blessed by the maxim that sometimes things are funny because they’re being done on camera. Sometimes that meant humor rising just above inside jokes, and sometimes it meant inside jokes. Either way, and Don’t Look Up included, there really needed to be a better thesis, and this is where Shin Godzilla comes in.

A film classifier might constructively consider Robocop a “social satire,” and that’s part of its unique character, but it’s far more compelling to me as an action drama. The satirical elements function as world-building, even thematically, characterizing Old Detroit as cold and mechanical, to where the emergence of humanity is cathartic (as it is bloodsoaked). Shin Godzilla is a civic lesson wearing the rubber suit of a Godzilla movie. In litigating the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the filmmakers identify the bureaucratic fuckery behind disastrous inaction, laying out the context for how bad decisions are made before demonstrating the process of good decisions. This is territory closer to similar civic lessons The Wire and the recent Dopesick, both of which have their share of satire, but do the job of establishing how things work and buttressing those educational moments with drama enough that it lands. By contrast, McKay’s earlier film The Big Short communicates its complicated subject matter with celebrity cutaways, to Selena Gomez and the late Anthony Bourdain. If it was just Selena Gomez, I’d imagine the joke was the pretty girl is saying smart stuff, but it’s actually Selena Gomez and maybe she said “fuck.” As a result, I know the same amount about the 2008 financial crisis now as before I saw The Big Short, whereas I learned a lot about sabermetrics from the Moneyball film adaptation (another Michael Lewis book). Crucially, I was interested in sabermetrics, in large part because I was interested in the heart of the story, the Billy Beane character. Satire does not work without the foundational elements of film and storytelling. A clever idea remains just that if attended to with the discipline of a student film bro from Fitchburg State.

What do we take away from Don’t Look Up? Does it teach us what to look out for in the messaging of elected officials or corporate businessmen? The most cutting insights in the movie draw on trending observations, and the novelty is rendering them, for the first time, in Jonah Hill. In a cute reversal, he’s the politician’s child who wants to fuck his politician parent. But it just had to be Jonah Hill, right? Maybe so we could remember the similar “satire” of his scene in Django Unchained? My least generous read of the film is that McKay wanted to be the one to say something first and loudest. Had he been a little late, sat down and thought through the satire and the structure, he might’ve revisited the later, speculative phase of the plot. Would the comet-deniers instantly turn on the lying politician once the evidence is visible? Climate skeptics have written bibles in their minds to explain away the flooding of coastal communities. If we couldn’t have something that felt more realistic, more familiar, what if we at least had something more interesting?

If I could hazard one further comparison, the climactic scene, where the found family shares a final dinner, recalls the Sandra Oh-starring Last Night, featuring one of my favorite David Cronenberg acting performances. In that 1998 film, we follow a number of characters living out their last hours before an unknown armageddon, and it’s about the revelations of intimate human nature. Don’t Look Up chooses this same narrative instance to make possibly the worst moral message to deliver dry to an American audience: “Appreciate what you have because it’s a lot.” Because the film doesn’t build up to this final note, it’s less of a defining moment than another angle of attack. Sure, what we have is precious, but I’m being asked to reflect on that by an image of Leonardo DiCaprio saying “What we have is precious.” It’s one of those morals that’s so important it shouldn’t need to be properly packaged, and here we are.

The failure to commit to anything, to earnestness, farce, or a not-magical combination of the two has an influence on the pacing. It’s overlong and boring, with scene after scene of not much. It’s tempting to call Don’t Look Up a missed opportunity, because I think Hollywood movies are the perfect medium for this sort of project. The time is now to cast politicians rather than radicals as the villains, to confront a mass audience with apocalypse imagery, and to challenge people to recognize themselves in characters behaving badly. The choice of satire as genre more often than not feels like an impulse, participation in a thoughtless tradition that necessarily shorts the fundamentals of story to assert an ideological position or land punchlines. The film is indeed most successful as a comedy, but maybe that’s the problem.

We know that a character has strayed from his mission because he cheats on his wife. By the same token, we know that a character is a bad politician because he makes sexist comments and has a crush on his mom. We know a further character is a bad influence on politics because he’s a weirdo. These latter two characters are built for jokes, and I worry this criticism isn’t wide enough to contain characters beyond the Trump sphere, people like Henry Kissinger, who’s pure evil but gentleman enough to achieve enormous feats of international diplomacy, or even someone like the late Colin Powell, a Black trailblazer whose hand in the infinitely criminal Iraq War is undeniable. The bad decisions produced by institutions are not necessarily the result of moral failing or personality quirks but psychological conditioning. Before I go too far describing the film I’d prefer Don’t Look Up to be, which is less fair than assessing what it actually is, this is weak, nonconfrontational storytelling. It underestimates the audience, and this is a measure always close at mind with satire.

It is not a useful film, by metrics invited fairly or not, and it is barely entertaining. The characters are props for purposes other than character, the drama is minimal on the altar of other preoccupations. Not an image or a moment will stick with me. It’s a production that seemed better suited to a podcast, sketch show, or at best an anthology episode. When it’s time to adapt to film Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History, I hope the powers that be have Scott Z. Burns on speed dial.


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