Movie review: Don’t Look Up

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Humans, as a species, are a happily delusional lot.

While we are fiercely intelligent (for the most part: COVID may challenge that notion among certain segments of the population) and capable of successfully tackling anything we put our mind to – we didn’t climb to the top of the evolutionary ladder by sheer accident – we also have a scary propensity for unconsciously shaping our perspective of an issue or situation to our overwhelming need to feel safe and secure.

This, cosy and warm though it sounds, does come with some considerable downsides.

Take climate change which, year by year, month by month, is looming as an ever greater threat to our future, with hard data in abundance that it is really taking place and is not the imaginational preserve of well-meaning lefties, but which is being treated by most governments as a political football or electoral piece of malleable PR and by many people are something that’s going to happen way down the track and which isn’t as important as mowing the lawn or getting good friends over to dinner.

Don’t Look Up, written and directed by Adam KcKay to a story by McKay and David Sirota, clearly understands how self-servingly blinkered we can be and in a bid to pierce that bubble of self-protective delusion, delivers up an allegory so unsubtle and determined to convince that it quite possibly has the opposite effect.

It’s intent is laudable; it appreciates that we have an endless capacity to lie to ourselves and shred the truth into pieces that we can throw away when no one is looking, and so seeks to address the issue of climate change from a wholly different angle, one which sees a planet killer comet hurtling towards Earth which will end all life as we know it.

That should be enough to make people wake and take notice, right? I mean, who can ignore or put off for another day the idea that everything we know and love is about to be smashed to world-ending rubble?

Goodbye life in all its flawed glory; hello, eternal oblivion … not all that appetising a prospect is it?

And yet, as Don’t Look Up mischievously but often cleverly points out, that is precisely what we are doing as a species.

We are looking a grave existential threat right in the eye and pretending it’s not even there or that we can address with tactics that will have no real material effect on its trajectory; it’s all set dressing and spin and no real, discernibly practical action.

Wrapped in broad brush, gleefully-delivered satire that makes you sit up and take notice – or switch off; to be fair, the first 45 minutes, especially in the middle of a reality-crunching pandemic, are enough to make you walk away and never come back, too much reality heaped upon unpalatable, lived-experience reality – Don’t Look Up take intensely aggrieved aim at a number of achilles heels that call into question our place at the top of the evolutionary pile.

In short order, and with the subtlety of a hammer slamming unyielding stone, the film skewers:

  • the vapidity and superficiality of modern media and social media that pays more attention to pop stars breaking up than real world issues (clickbait, anyone?) and which favours the frothy and the easily digestible over the thoughtfully worked through,
  • the excruciatingly short-term focus of the democratic political process which is more worried about upcoming polls or electoral cycles than it is tackling difficult issues with possible unpopular but necessary remedies,
  • the capitalist-centric drivers of our modern world which places a value on everything from peoples’ labour to the arts and devalues thinkers and dreamers in favour of elevating business gurus,
  • the inclination of those in the establishment to use science when and how it suits them and to only take those bits they like or which suit their agenda and leave the rest behind, abrogating the worth of hard-won knowledge,
  • and finally, the prioritising of humanity below that of money and power, of likability and charm above speaking the truth to power and of presenting false idealism to mask dirty, grubby, cold-blooded pragmatism.

Throughout Don’t Look Up we see all of these tendencies brought up onto the narrative stage, rightly ridiculed and mocked and left to stand in their supposed shame of exposure; it’s hard to miss that they are on the judgemental chopping block, and while the film nails the deficiencies in every single one of these modern trends, it never really conclusively lands a fatal punch.

Don’t Look Up is funny and incisively and undeniably clever and as we witness Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonard DiCaprio) and his doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) who actually discovers the harbinger of what turns out to be humanity’s self-inflicted doom, do their best to convince the world the end is nigh, to damn near no effect, you have to admire McKay’s need to make us all sit up and listen.

We are sleepwalking to our not-too-distant demise and yet as the film points out again and again, whether through the person of U.S. President, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep in fine form), TV hosts Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett who nails her role) or tech billionaire Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) who gains a seat at the decision table simply because he is a major donor to Orlean’s campaign, we are not taking the necessary steps to avert what is all but certain fate.

Early on in the film, for reasons that have everything to do with short-term political gain and nothing to do with taking the issue seriously, the U.S. Government agrees to take real and concrete steps to avert catastrophe, only to sabotage them for reasons which are laughably but alarmingly shortsighted.

Like much of the humour in the film, your reaction to finding out why a real and working solution is aborted in favour of something that will allow the rich to get richer at the possible expense of everyone else, is one of amused horror as it sinks in once again that people will do what suits them at the time and not what benefits the planet or those around them in the mid-to-longer term.

As wake-up calls go, Don’t Look Up is hard to miss, loud, in-your-face and gothically hilarious.

Where it loses out is that in trying so hard to make its point, which towards the end of weaker but emotional potent second half, it leaves you alarmed but not inclined to action, so beaten down by its Cassandra calls to action that you simply want to fire up a sitcom, grab some wine and wish it all away.

Which is precisely what it is saying the problem is to begin with; in the end, while the intent and even some of the execution of Don’t Look Up is laudably good – the final scene of Mindy with his family will break your heart, especially and you know it was all sadly preventable) – and you are left impressed by the scope, acting and intelligence of the film, it fails to land a convincing blow, brilliant satire brought low by trying to do too much too loudly and leaving craving the very superficial escapes we should be eschewing in favour of urgently-needed action.

  • One critic who feels the negative assessments aren’t justified at all is Forbes’ David Vetter who presents a compelling argument for why this is the film of our time.

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