NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
“We really did have everything, didn’t we?”
This is one of the last lines of dialogue spoken in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. Amidst the film’s messy nature, it’s unexpectedly blunt and shattering because it rings true.
We not only had everything, but so did Earth in providing all life and nature for us. No matter where our generation goes, one thing for sure is that we’re all going to die, and everything will disappear. It’s inevitable. It may be later, but McKay’s Don’t Look Up presents a tragic case that it may be sooner.
PhD graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers something on the space-station monitors. She takes a closer look, and then the shock hits her. It’s a gigantic comet. She calls her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), about the discovery and it’s cause for celebration… only for Mindy to take a closer look at the readings. It’s not going to pass by Earth. It’s going to hit the planet in six months. Kate and Mindy keep going through the readings again and send them to NASA, but the results are always the same.
There needs to be action taken, so the first thing Kate and Mindy do is visit the White House and present their findings to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), a clear parody of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. She’s listening, along with her son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), but their faces say it all: it’s boring, irrelevant and not a huge worry. They’re not going to do anything.
Instead, Kate and Mindy decide to leak the news to the media and secure an interview with prominent television personalities, Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). They too take the news lightly, as it “helps the medicine go down easier.” Not only does the interview become a meme and the discovery of the comet is barely reported on, but it also appears, no matter what Kate and Mindy try to do, humanity isn’t listening, nor does anyone care. And the comet looms closer to planet Earth.
This may not be the case for most audiences, but once McKay establishes the stakes of Don’t Look Up, unfolding in Saturday Night Live style, it’s clear how it will end. I won’t spoil it, but the film’s inevitability is where Don’t Look Up functions at its strongest. I admit to disliking Don’t Look Up on initial viewing, especially with how it handles its satire, editing and direction. However, those stylistic choices have slowly grown on me, and a second viewing has helped matters further.
McKay’s script is often darkly humorous, apolitical, and unafraid to skewer through every political group and character presented. It mocks politicians for either not listening to scientific facts or using them to create further societal division. It tears apart media organisations and journalists for trivialising the issues at hand, while condemning corporations and their capitalistic structures for exploiting the Earth. Finally, Don’t Look Up critiques society for being too indifferent or making light of current events around them. No one is safe in McKay’s path, and the film’s didacticism slams its messages into the viewer’s psyche.
The world we live in is a political, economic, social, and cultural mess. In recent times, we have been dealing with climate change, coronavirus, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, NSW and Queensland floodings, etc. It feels like the world will end, but we’re not caring enough about it and Don’t Look Up reflects that. Its heavy-handedness appears obnoxious, but it makes the case that subtlety may no longer be a useful tool, especially when it comes to addressing the rapid and often irreparable deterioration of society. Even with an apparent distrust towards its audience, Don’t Look Up believes, by prophesying how its plot could happen soon, that a thinly veiled allegory of climate change might just help to get the point across.
The points Don’t Look Up makes are essential and shouldn’t be ignored, but sometimes they are made messily. What it has to say isn’t always in-depth or nuanced, and by satirising the world, Don’t Look Up’s commentary feels broad, even if it’s almost exclusively mocking American culture.
Somehow, despite being overlong and poorly paced, there still needed to be more out of its commentary. Reading some of the negative critiques, there’s not a lot of information Don’t Look Up provides to convince or sway anti-climate change proponents from their stances, and it often feels like the film is preaching to its choir rather than convincing all its audiences, although it has the benefit of being well-made.
McKay usually delivers on the comedy, but it can be hit-or-miss, as set-ups focus on making the characters into obvious caricatures and the delivery subsequently falls flat while providing character subplots that don’t go anywhere, despite that element being slightly recontextualised by the ending.
However, when viewing Don’t Look Up as a terrifying, apocalyptic downer than a comedy, it works more in the film’s favour. That way, the attempts at humour feed into its anxieties rather than appease them, with McKay – and hopefully, most of us - knowing that people treat such vital issues lightly.
Despite Don’t Look Up occasionally feeling like an SNL skit, there is still an alarming sense of reality, making the plot feel not so much like satire when comparing the cartoonish, exaggerated nature of its characters to real-life societal behaviours. It conveys raw and furiously bleak energy that is understandably seen as condescending, but this fear that the world may end in a matter of months still feels palpable because it could happen.
If Don’t Look Up’s apocalyptic elements aren’t made clear enough, then they certainly will be in most of the performances. Packed with A-list celebrities, Don’t Look Up uses its star-studded appeal to attract its audience and places Leonardo DiCaprio in the centre, who, for years, has been advocating about the impacts of climate change. He’s solid, yet when his character finally breaks down on live television, it doesn’t feel like DiCaprio is acting anymore. He’s projecting all his fears and anger as he directly addresses the audience, effectively breaking the fourth wall. His chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence makes their character dynamics watchable, and as for the rest of the cast, most performances are satisfying while others leave more to be desired.
Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett ham their performances up, while Jonah Hill has fun leaning into his role’s obnoxiousness. Rob Morgan plays things appropriately straightforward. Timothée Chalamet and Ron Perlman offer a few good laughs, while the likes of Tyler Perry, Himesh Patel and Kid Cudi are too under-used. Mark Rylance commits to an off-putting parody of exploitative billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Alongside the performances’ divisive reception, Don’t Look Up’s technical filmmaking, and, in particular, Hank Corwin’s editing has faced criticism. A frequent collaborator with Adam McKay and Terrence Malick, the choices made to compose this story together are too jarring.
I understand what Corwin is trying to do, utilising fast-cuts and abrupt editing techniques to build the characters’ inner chaos, montages to breeze through absurd societal reactions and perspectives to the events of the film before letting its pace slow down unusually, and freeze-frames to make images feel like memories that’ll be lost forever. It’s an experimental play on temporality, but these choices disrupt the narrative flow, tap into the film’s corniness too often, sometimes make you wonder if your stream is buffering and lacks a tightness that irritates the viewing experience. The film is too unhinged for its own good, and it’s even more bizarre that it secured an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing.
Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, particularly on 35mm film, looks solid, even if the shot composition and framing don’t have much to remark on.
However, Nicholas Britell’s musical score is a genuine stand-out. His melodies are initially innocuous, playing with camp and absurdity to compliment the film’s flawed comedic angle. The score seamlessly switches to downbeat, meditative tempos whenever it detects Don’t Look Up’s dark tonal shifts. It allows the themes to find the devastating, fractured beauty of our world and how it’s easy to have everything and before losing it forever. That’s what makes Don’t Look Up work on further reflection.
This is a mess of a film with some solid highs and disappointing lows, both conflicting with each other. It’s thematically important and yet approaches its messages in an uneven manner. It’s occasionally funny but doesn’t deliver as many laughs, and works more when it leans into its apocalyptic elements.
It may be preachy, but this is something that can happen. It’s stylistically unrefined, even though there is purpose behind the filmmaking and editing. Underneath its flaws, there are ultimately good intentions and heart that, despite how reactionary it gets, makes its way under your skin.
Adam McKay has become a real love-him-or-hate-him director, frequently missing but making enough effective hits, and even though Don’t Look Up always seemed destined to polarise, it’s a terrifying, unsubtle wake-up call that feels necessary.