Rev Up the Engines

REVIEW: Don't Look Up


Netflix seems to have a massive hit with Adam McKay's latest film, Don't Look Up.  The comedic satire about climate change racked up eleven million hours of viewing in its first few days on the streaming platform.  With names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Meryl Streep in starring roles, it's understandable that many people would be curious about this movie.

Our main characters are astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), and his phd student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), who discover a massive comet that is going to collide with the year in six months time.  This impact will be an extinction level event, but the reaction to this news doesn't cause mass panic and fear.  President Orlean (Streep) is more worried about midterm elections, and how to spin this news to her political benefit.  Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwell, a massively popular tech icon who sees the comet as dollar bills because it contains precious metals.

The goal of this film, and its allegory of the incoming doom of climate change, seems to be about the importance of listening to scientist and how world threatening events get politicized.  The image McKay depicts of the public is a divide between those who understand the seriousness of the comet and those who view it as nonsense and reject it.  These representations compare fairly well to the different sides of the spectrum when it comes to certain issues in the world, from climate change to the Covid pandemic.

The problem that this film runs into, however, is in these depictions.  I'm all for satire that has a message, but there is a fine line that to walk between being effective and being cartoonish.  Sadly, everyone in this film that isn't panicking is presented as a complete caricature.  You either believe this comet exists and is dangerous, or you are a moron.  I believe that this sort of approach can work in a satire, but it's really tricky to do effectively.  With Don't Look Up, I feel that the oversimplified deniers feeds into an overall preachy message that really hits the viewer over the head.

In the last number of years, director and writer Adam McKay has shifted from making standard Will Ferrell films to ones that have a political message.  I was a massive fan of The Big Short in 2015.  His next film, Vice, was good, but it felt like it was didactic and heavy handed.  I still enjoyed it, but its flaws were notable. Any issues I had with Vice are more present and more in your face in Don't Look Up, which is about as heavy handed as a movie can get.

I really wanted to love this film.  There were some amazing performances, and I liked the allegory of a doomsday comet representing the oncoming destruction of unchecked climate change.  Many of the jokes made me chuckle, and some felt quite clever.  Ultimately, though, it was just the forced nature of the message, the ham-fisted and not at all subtle direction McKay takes to make his point that kept me from connecting to it.  In fact, it kind of felt like I was a child being told a bedtime story to scare me into caring about the environment.

Instead of this film being a springboard for conversation, it comes across as an 'us versus them' echo chamber that has had its message of tribalism seep from the film into the real world.  An internet battle seems to be happening, with critics who disliked the film being bashed for not caring about climate change.  This is one of those rare examples of a film where one camp instantly believes that if you didn't like it you must be against it.  I could easily write a whole piece on this, as it is incredibly ridiculous to think that if someone didn't like a movie they are automatically opposed to its message.  The themes of a film are just one part of the overall experience, and there are so many other factors that contribute to whether or not a film is enjoyed.  

Adam McKay and co-writer David Sirota haven't helped this at all by recent tweets that they have made, and I think those tweets just illustrate the issues of the film.  If you're not one of us, you're an idiot.  I agree that following proven science is important, but I also think that story telling is important in film, and that messy story telling can trump your acceptance of the message.  

I'm glad that this film is getting lots of views, and hopefully it will have some people thinking twice about what we are doing to our planet.  However, I personally don't think that the final product will be as good at starting conversation as it could have been.  Don't Look Up isn't a nuanced film, it is a hammer being wielded by people who want to bash you over the head to get their point across.  Hammers can make great houses, they cannot easily make great movies.

Rating - 2 out of 4 stars

Comments

  1. It does have a fun mid-credit and an end-credit scene that both made me chuckle. Too bad the rest of the humour got overwhelmed by its messaging.

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    Replies
    1. I didn’t see the end credit scene, but the mid credit one got a laugh. It was a good pay off to a random line from the movie. I so wanted to like this film.

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