Movies love to threaten the Earth. It’s human nature. In some of the most plausible doomsday movies – “Meteor,” “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” – a large space rock threatens to annihilate. Usually, if not always fortunately, someone eventually comes to the rescue, although that was not the case in the 1951 film “When Worlds Collide”. Before being right about his title, this shocker throws survivalists up an ark to colonize another planet, which is more or less what Elon Musk talked about with Space X.
Director Adam McKay is in no mood for nihilistic flights. Our planet is too expensive and its future too terrifying, as underscored by the accelerated rate of species extinction and global deforestation. But humanity is not interested in saving Earth no matter itself, as the recent climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland reminded us. We are too numb, stupid, helpless and indifferent, too busy fighting meaningless battles. So McKay did “Don’t Look Up,” a very angry, deeply anguished comedy about how we blow it up, rushing into oblivion. He sweetened the underwhelming setup with a lot of yuck – good, bad, indifferent – but if you’re crying, it might not be laughing.
Maybe bring tissues, but don’t look for speeches about climate change and global warming. Rather than directly confronting the existential horror of our environmental catastrophe, McKay took an allegorical approach in “Don’t Look Up” with a comet destroying the world. Oh sure, on their website, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (yes, that’s real) doesn’t worry about near-Earth objects, as they’re called: “No known asteroids over. 140 yards in size does have a significant chance of hitting Earth for the next 100 years. Phew. But whatever. The planet is on fire, as is McKay, who embraced his inner Roland Emmerich (“2012”) with fury by giving us a big joke.
This joke is definitely on us or will soon be in “Don’t Look Up,” which follows a carefully curated motley collection of scientists, politicians, the military, journalists, and a variety of others who are – and may not – face the threat. of a rapidly approaching comet. “I heard there was an asteroid or a comet or something that you didn’t like the appearance of,” a visibly annoyed President of the United States (Meryl Streep) told anxious scientists who got an imperial audience. Scientists really don’t like what they saw, but the president has other things on her mind, including the upcoming election and the friendly pervert she’s trying to get placed on the Supreme Court.
Filled with big names, plenty of ambitiously staged locations and sets (and plenty of jaw-dropping hairstyles), the film, now streaming on Netflix, is a busy and loud mixed bag, and whether you laugh or not, you can. always clench your teeth. The story opens in an observatory where Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student, first sees the comet. Kate’s dizziness at her discovery quickly turns to fear when her teacher, Dr. Randall Mindy (a formidable Leonardo DiCaprio), calculates a few numbers and achieves the worst. Together, they pass the bad news on to each other. Enter NASA (Rob Morgan), the Army (Paul Guilfoyle) and the White House, where the film breeze takes an ominous turn.
Also for the frantic, strident and obvious. McKay’s touch here is considerably more brutal and less productive than it has been in some time. In his two previous films – “The Big Short” and “Vice” – he mixed the comic and dramatic modes for a fascinating effect. He experimented with tone and pitch, and played up and down different scales, from very serious to shockingly stupid. It hasn’t always worked. It turned out easier to get into McKay’s beat when you laughed at, say, Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages while she was taking a bubble bath in “The Big Short” than when you were watching Dick. Christian Bale’s Cheney discussing another American war in “Vice.”
The stakes are even higher in “Don’t Look Up,” which gets more frenetic and wobbly as the inevitability of disaster is finally grasped by even the most ridiculous of the film’s buff-rich characters. One problem is that some of McKay’s biggest targets here – particularly in politics and infotainment – have already peaked at self-parody or tragedy (or both). What remains to satirically skewer when facts are derided as opinion, Flat Earthers attend annual conferences, and conspiracy theory movements like QAnon have become powerful political forces?
Even so, McKay continues to rock hard and fast, and from the start, establishes a visceral sense of urgency with loose, choppy camera work and quick editing that fits the ticking time bomb story. He throws zingers and stages comic book pieces, making good use of grimaces, popping eyebrows, slow burns, and double takes. Part ethnographer, part sociologist, he is particularly good at digging funny-ha-ha, funny-bizarre spaces between people. But he doesn’t always have control over his material, including some cheap clichés that slip into silly sexism. Presidential vanity is always a fair target, but too many digs directed at Streep’s character play on gender stereotypes.
Streep is a lot of fun to watch when she doesn’t inadvertently make you cringe, and Lawrence gives the film a consistent emotional boost, even at its most frenetic. McKay’s work with DiCaprio is particularly memorable, in part because Mindy’s trajectory – from an honest and concerned scientist to a flippant, star-studded celebrity – reinforces the film’s heartbreaking and unspeakable truth: human narcissism and all that it is. it caused, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. Ultimately, McKay doesn’t do much more in this movie than yell at us, but then we deserve it.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
Learn more at nytimes.com
In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.
In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing you can help us tell the story right.