‘Don’t Look Up’ Mines for Laughs in Humanity’s Soullessness

The final moments of Don’t Look Up find a small group of family, friends, and colleagues gathered around a dinner table, enjoying a last meal together before a comet the size of Mount Everest collides into the Indian Ocean and ceases Earth’s existence. The scene is touching, sprinkled with humor, fear, even spirituality, as this group tries to tiptoe around the end of their lives and life itself.

The great irony of Don’t Look Up is that moment, in all its tender humanity, was entirely avoidable.

Amongst that small group are Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) of Michigan State University. They discover the come during a routine sky exploration and quickly realize that it is bound for Earth. Terrified by the extinction-level event the comet will cause, they quickly engage the highest levels of the U.S. government, only to be effectively ignored in favor of comparatively minor concerns, like embarrassing Supreme Court picks and shaky midterm election prospects. After being rebuffed by the President (Meryl Streep) and her son/chief of staff (Jonah Hill), Randall and Kate take their concerns to the public, only to encounter the same level of unseriousness from the media, celebrities, and even everyday people. In other words, no one trusts the science.

It’s impossible to watch Don’t Look Up without considering the world in which it’s being released. Writer-director Adam McKay has fashioned this story within the context of climate change, a tremendous peril with cataclysmic potential that many still deny despite overwhelming evidence. The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a more immediate reference point. The pandemic has rapidly mutated into a dispiriting boondoggle of misinformation, mistrust, and rejection of scientific principles, costing millions of lives worldwide and leaving more with side effects we still don’t fully understand. 

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up (Courtesy: Netflix)

The film’s comedic power lies in the intense relatability and predictability of Randall and Kate’s journey. There are near-perfect real-world analogs to their experiences trying to stop the comet: authentic emotion being manipulated into memes; public servants flattening into objects of admiration and desire; corporate interests leapfrogging over common-sense action, and then the media’s deification of those interests; family ties being severed over positions not fully understood; and the commodification of those positions for the benefit of the very few. It isn’t quite right to say that Don’t Look Up dabbles in the absurd because we’re dealing with it right now, except the movie’s title is the phrase emblazoned on hats and poster boards.

Don’t Look Up offers great schadenfreude, precisely because the misery mirrors our own and yet isn’t directly happening to us (yet). However, there is a hollowness and condescension that makes the laughter feel cold. The film essentially argues that humanity is beyond saving, even those fighting desperately to save it. Again it’s an understandable position given everything we’ve experienced in the past few years, but it doesn’t leave room for any real insight, nuance, or perspective. McKay doesn’t explore the foundation of denial on micro or macro levels, instead just fixing an accusatory, irritated look at everyone and us by extension. He doesn’t examine the perspectives of those who might be heeding Randall and Kate’s warnings, treating the whole American populace as a dim, brainwashed monolith. And apart from a few passing mentions of Russia, China, and India, he lays the comet crisis squarely at America’s feet, as if it is the only country on Earth capable of conducting the research and acquiring the resources to save the planet. It is a narrow view of a cataclysm that unintentionally reinforces one of the reasons we’re here in the first place.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Timothee Chalamet in Don’t Look Up (Courtesy: Netflix)

Don’t Look Up boasts an ensemble stacked with stars willing to admonish society over its inaction, and they do a pretty good job at it, even though most of them feel like caricatures rather than people. I can’t believe that Leonardo DiCaprio has waited this long to deliver a Peter Finch-styled manic monologue. It’s well worth the wait, especially as he tracks Randall’s gradual anxiety and bafflement at the theatrics surrounding him. (It’s easy to imagine that DiCaprio’s passion for the environment slipped into his character’s very public meltdown). Jennifer Lawrence’s shock and disillusionment as Kate are just as palpable, and she gives one of the film’s best comedic performances. Surprisingly, Timothee Chalamet and Melanie Lynskey deliver the film’s much-needed human element with their sensitive performances.

It is telling that Don’t Look Up’s best moments are in the human-scale interactions, like Kate’s bafflement over a general charging her money for free White House snacks or that final scene. They convey the silliness and urgency of our current moment better than the nature montages, the fake social media visuals, or the story threads about Supreme Court sexcapades and pop star drama that McKay fills his film with. It’s effortless to laugh at Don’t Look Up. It’s harder to imagine it opening people’s eyes to the myriad crises facing us down or the powers that be exacerbating it. In that sense, Don’t Look Up is as much a self-fulfilling prophecy as a biting cultural satire.

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