Adam McKay’s satire “Don’t Look Up” is a clever film that lacks wit. The difference is that the mind is multifaceted, like a gemstone which, even small, offers different glows from different angles. The skill is exhausted in a single reflection then is repeated endlessly.
“Don’t Look Up”, for the record, tells the story of the discovery of a huge comet heading for a direct strike on Earth which would end life on the planet; the degraded journalistic environment which trivializes the discovery and minimizes the danger; and the inept president whose self-interested blunders allow the comet to strike, catastrophically. It is a rowdy comedy in which a story made up of almost plausible elements is told through exaggerated character traits, absurd situations and performances by high power stars. It’s also a film about the devastated mediaphere – yet, even with the best of intentions, the film only adds to the scourge.
The comet is discovered by Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student in astronomy at Michigan State; his path to Earth is discovered by his advisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and they calculate he will strike in just six months. They are addressed to Nasa and are put in touch with Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (a true federal office, like a surtitle informs viewers), who rushes them to the White House to deliver the news in person to the president, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). Her political party is not specified (nobody’s party is – there is no reference to real-world politics in the film) but her actions resemble those of Donald Trump: she appoints a judge from the Supreme Court of dubious characterization and sex scandal, falsifies scientific data to seek advantage in the midterm elections and leaves the public racist remarks of a subordinate unchallenged.
When President Orleans treats the evidence and the three scientists with contempt, they publicly announce that the world is about to end. Kate and Randall chat with New York reporters Herald (its logo uses the same font as the Time) and take part in a morning talk show, where they are urged to “stay light”. Amid the cheerful conversation of the hosts, Jack (Tyler Perry) and Brie (Cate Blanchett), Kate and Randall’s doomsday warnings are dismissed until Kate begins to scream in the air, making herself enemies of the hosts and becoming a derided social media meme. When the President finds it politically expedient to do so, she sets up a mission to deflect the comet, exactly as best science recommends, and then, at the behest of a tech billionaire named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) , she cancels the mission and leaves Peter to attempt to reap untold fortune in the rare earth minerals of the comet instead. Meanwhile, the public is divided between those who trust the science and those who call the comet a hoax – between the realists who implore their neighbors to watch the comet and recognize the imminent threat, and the deniers whose slogan gives to the film its title.
The comedic energy of the film comes mostly from its asides and sidebar – the cheeky and intimidating snark of the President’s young chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill), who is also his son, and the promotion of a disaster movie. titled “Total Devastation” slated for release the day this comet is expected to strike, to the Internet shitposter accusing “Jewish billionaires invented this comet threat so the government can confiscate our freedom and our weapons,” and the obsession national love life of pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), who eventually joins Kate and Randall at “For Real Last Concert to Save the World,” where she sings a romantic ballad with lyrics as ominously hilarious as “Get Out Your Head of your ass, listen to the fucking skilled scientists We really screwed it up … You’re about to die soon, folks.
Journalists from Herald, rather than weigh in on scientists’ discovery of the Killer Comet and its impending strike, obsess over social media engagement and quickly let the depressing story die; Peter does a staged product rollout, using children as near-robotic props, where an announcer warns members of the audience not to look him in the eye and to avoid “negative facial expressions”. In the talk show’s green room, Kate rejects a dress a stylist brings, but Randall lets the stylist cut his beard even as he resists a panic attack. The scene foreshadows his transformation into a TV celebrity and some sort of nerdy sex object, who is then co-opted into government service to give the corrupt administration the guise of scientific legitimacy. Best of riffs – because seemingly haphazard and oblique but ultimately crowned with a single line of political psychology that’s deeper and more mysterious than anything else in the movie – is the trivial twist of a three-star general (Paul Guilfoyle) who, outside the Oval Office, charges scientists dearly for crisps and water (which are supposed to be free).
It’s no surprise to learn that the actors improvised copiously, as the film has a riffy, tangy feel to it. Yet the rapid editing of images composed almost arbitrarily creates a strict rigidity. The tone of improv comedy comes without the sense of risk; the one-liners are hammered into character and story boundaries like tiles in a grid, and the only excesses are a handful of eruptive TV tirades that play out as iconic ‘network’ moments to wake viewers’ pumps . What is surprising is that the script was written before COVID pandemic – the film is a surprisingly sharp take on the willful and venal denial that has plagued crisis responses at all levels of government and business, and which has been matched throughout by the sectarian rejection of medical advice by individuals in all strata and sectors of society.
These related details, and the quick comedic dialogue (the President’s vain babble, Brie’s coldly cynical banter in the bedroom), make “Don’t Look Up” stand out, at the very least, as a focused political cartoon extended to the scale of a grandiose fresco, with all the pomp and monotony that such inflation suggests. The film lives by its place in the speech, such as this speech is. It satirizes the undercover flow of celebrity gossip and light frivolities, click-bait repelling investigative reporting, and tech moguls not only usurping government power, but requisitioning public discourse. Yet its own anti-aesthetic of neutral imagery and predigested narrative efficiency, its celebrity feast with all-star tricks and flashy performances, and its simplistic and pathetic anger obscures the film’s fundamental position of being talked about while at the same time. completely eliminating any real meaning. politics or political confrontation. Much of it takes place in and around government, but does not suggest anything like political opposition, like in Congress or in the state houses, to President Orleans’ actions and inaction regarding The Comet. (Closest is the pious radical populism of the spontaneous uprising of supporters of Orleans at a rally where they realize they have been lied to.)