After seeing the responses to climate change and Coronavirus, it’s not very hard to believe that many people would have a flippant or downright antagonistic response to a life-ending comet headed towards Earth. That’s the plot of Adam McKay’s new film, Don’t Look Up. Two scientists are horrified by the reaction they receive after sharing their discovery that there are only six months left before a planet-ending catastrophe will occur.
The satire might not be subtle, but it’s biting all the same, from the ridiculous president focusing on how it will improve her image to the strange priorities of the news coverage.
The satirical science fiction black comedy was written and directed by McKay, best known for the divisive films, The Big Short and Vice. In his latest work, Michigan State Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) spots a comet while on a lowkey day at work. The music swells as she makes her discovery, and she eagerly goes to show it to Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio).
However, when they start to calculate the comet’s course, they realize that it’s no ordinary finding and, amidst freaking out, join up with Dr. Teddy Oglethrope (Rob Morgan) of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
When Kate and Randall’s calculations are confirmed, the trio heads to the White House to debrief the president, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). However, the president’s son and Chief of Staff, Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), puts them off until the next day as both Kate and Randall’s anxiety are spiking as they realize that the leaders of their country aren’t taking the impending end of the world seriously. Things only worsen when they meet with the President, who wants to “sit tight and assess.”
McKay isn’t just presenting a commentary on the top level of American government; he also shows how the media likes to sensationalize everything except for the country’s most pressing matters. TV anchor Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) is more interested in Randall for his looks than for the science he’s trying to share.
DiCaprio does excellent work as the professor whose head is eventually swayed by power. He’s a grounding presence in a ridiculous and over-the-top film and slips easily into the character of the anxious everyman.
It’s not the most impressive work he’s ever done, but it’s a reminder that he can excel in a role that downplays his movie-star charisma. Lawrence also nails the part of the stoner grad student Kate, and though it doesn’t demand as much from her as many of her past roles have, it’s a clear sign that she’s back in Hollywood.
Streep and Hill give the most over-the-top performances of the cast. McKay is clearly making a statement on a certain former president from the nepotism of having her son as her Chief of Staff to Janie having copies of her book arranged around the Oval Office. At one point, Hill even remarks, “If she weren’t my mother….” The role isn’t a stretch for Streep on any level, but it’s a nice reminder that she’s a solid comedic actress. Hill is annoying in the role, but seemingly purposefully so.
Don’t Look Up has such an insane ensemble cast that it’s difficult to pick a standout. Mark Rylance gives an unusual performance as businessman and entrepreneur Peter Isherwell, with white hair and a frail voice. He inhabits the role of a man more interested in what the comet might mean for his technology company than the harm it might cause the planet with a pointed kind of quiet intimidation.
Ariana Grande proves her comedic abilities once again in the role of pop star Riley Blina, who is essentially a more vapid version of herself. Her performance of “Don’t Look Up” is one of the best music used within a non-musical film this year. Timothée Chalamet doesn’t get much screen time as the stoner skateboarder Yule, but he certainly makes the most of what he has and proves that he can have chemistry with anyone. His ability to bring an earnestness to even a role like this surely marks him as one of the greatest young actors today.
If you’re looking for a subtle commentary on the state of our country, Don’t Look Up, isn’t it? The satire might be in your face, but it doesn’t make it any less funny—or the truth in it any less chilling. From the depiction of a Trump-like president to the sexism in response to Kate and Randall’s media appearances, the film taps into America's problems right now. “The end is near. Will, there be a Super Bowl?” a magazine cover asks.
Seeing how disasters have been handled recently, it feels less like satire and more like an unfortunate prediction for how America would handle a situation like this.
Despite many visual quirks, this is the most accessible of McKay’s films. There are occasional annotations onscreen and a lot of quick editing. Most notable are the flashes of nature shots interspersed throughout the movie that seems to be a reminder of what is at stake to be lost should the comet impact Earth. But while the middle of the film drags a bit, it can keep the audience engaged with its fast-paced dialogue and editing.
Even as an avid admirer of both The Big Short and Vice, I would easily consider Don’t Look Up my favorite of McKay’s films. The commentary is disturbingly relevant but so funny that the audience can still enjoy watching it. The film allows many members of the cast – DiCaprio, Lawrence, Morgan, Chalamet – moments to shine while still maintaining a true ensemble feel. While Don’t Look Up sees McKay pivot from explaining past events to imagining future ones, it doesn’t feel any less true.
Don't Look Up arrives on Netflix on December 10, 2021.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.