Written by Adam McKay (THE BIG SHORT, VICE) and David Sirota and directed by McKay, DON’T LOOK UP (2021) is a brilliant satire about how our culture warps reality, while reality hurtles straight at us uncaring what anybody believes it’s real or not. I loved it.
In this film, PhD student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a new comet entering our solar system. Her professor, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) does some calculations on its trajectory and comes to the horrifying realization the comet will smash into Earth in six months and destroy all life on the planet. What follows is a story about two scientists who simply want to convince humanity the threat is real and that they should do something about it.
The President (a blend of Trump and Hillary Clinton played by Meryl Streep) and her son and chief of staff (a blend of Trump’s kids, played by Jonah Hill), politicize the threat. A sociopath Silicon Valley tech billionaire (a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, played by Mark Rylance) wants to exploit the comet’s resources. Media personalities (played by various actors including Cate Blanchett) trivialize the threat and make its very existence a he said/she said argument. When the comet appears as an angry smear in the sky, humanity becomes galvanized between two sides, those who believe the threat is real (they look up) and those who stubbornly deny its existence.
This is pretty on the nose satire. Denial of science, evocative of climate change, COVID, and vaccine denial. Wonks believing the free market will fix existential crises. The popularity of placing oneself between two sides of an argument that has a clear, factually correct side. Celebrity culture impacting the popularity of one side or the other. Slimy billionaires and elites believing they can insulate themselves from problems facing all humanity while offering solutions that really benefit their own profits. America’s current inability and unwillingness to solve big problems that don’t involve blowing up another country.
Looking at Rotten Tomatoes, viewers generally liked the film, though it got much lower scores from reviewers, who tut-tutted about its tone and laughably became part of the satire themselves. You can skewer American culture with satire but not with too fine a blade, then it’s considered too shrill. In that, DON’T LOOK UP joins the ranks of films like IDIOCRACY.
So yeah, overall, I loved it. And I loved its tone. For me, as CHILDREN OF MEN captured the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 era, DON’T LOOK UP perfectly captures our current moment, and holds up for inspection America’s inability to solve big problems due to corruption, greed, distraction, and short-term thinking.