Culture

Look at Us

In Don’t Look Up fantastic realism meets disaster cinema to show why humanity is destined to perish in a carnival of idiocy and madness

Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy in “Don’t Look Up” – Niko Tavernise / Netflix / The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Our house is on fire: Don’t Look Up. We have 7 years to save the world. The climate clock is ticking. Will you listen? 

As a planet-killer comet hurtles towards Earth in Adam McKay’s latest disaster film, scientists Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) and PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jenifer Lawrence) assure President Orlean (Meryl Streep), with a 99.78% certainty, that everyone is going to die in 6 months. The President, however, is more concerned with winning the midterms and wants to “sit tight and assess.” Desperately, Dr. Randall and Dibiasky make their national morning show debut, in the hopes of warning the world about this impending cosmic disaster. Instead, a celebrity break-up overshadows the comet’s importance and its host, Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), asks the scientists to “keep the bad news light.” After Dibiasky, with a Greta Thunberg inspired passion, manically storms off, she is characterised as hysterical and made into a meme (How dare they!). Her journalist boyfriend, Phillip Kaj (Himesh Patel), even writes an article about her, titled, “You Know That Crazy Chick Who Thinks We’re All Going To Die? I actually slept with her”. Cautious Dr. Mindy, on the other hand, is sexualised and typecast as Dr. Randall, “The Bedroom Eyes Doomsday Prophet,” otherwise known as an A.I.A.F (Astronomer I’d Like to F*ck). 

In lieu of Ivy League scientists confirming Dr. Mindy’s Michigan State data, the President approves a mission to divert the comet – but not without delivering a speech sprinkled with lines from Saving Private Ryan (some prefer Legally Blonde), and starting #LaunchChallenge. However, as urged by the disturbing Jobs-Musk-Zuckerberg-Bezos-Biden hybrid Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the President stops the mission in support of a more profitable one. Isherwell claims, backed up by unproven and un-peer reviewed, technology that he can bring the comet to a safe landing and preserve its precious metals. (If only I had a Nickel for every time I heard that one.) As a consequence, a scientific armageddon ensues, and Dr. Mindy accuses Isherwell of taking a “business-man approach to science”. Realising that the comet is, in fact, more forthcoming than his affairs with morning show hosts, Dr. Mindy (executed impressively by DiCaprio) explosively begs the public to trust the facts; to stop politicising the science. 

Once the comet becomes visible, #Don’tLookUp versus #LookUp divides the world. While those distrustful of the science attend Trump-style rallies-held by President Orlean wearing a #Don’tLookUp cap-others spread factual awareness. Even more people, including Yule (Timothée Chalamet), turn to religion. The scientists are vilified, and when the comet is right in front of them, most are still distracted by lying politicians and the media. With the comet inexorably blasting towards earth, it is only until much too late that the billionaire, the President, and her doltish son (Jonah Hill), decide to destroy the comet. When this fails, Isherwell and Orlean escape on a life-preserving, state-of-the-art cryo-chamber, ship. Of course, besides 2,000 other elites, everyone else, including her son, is left to die. Patriot News Network still insists that there is only one story everyone is talking about: “topless urgent care centres.” 

Make America Stupid Again! President Orlean (Maryl Streep) and her oedpial son Jason (Jonah Hill)- Photo credit: Niko Tavernise / Netflix / The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Despite a false hope that the comet will somehow be stopped, it keeps coming, and the ending spirals into an apocalyptic showdown. Spending their final moments in a loving, domestic, silence, Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky’s end contrasts the clamour on the streets. An ending devoid of satire, it becomes apparent that although McKay caricatures his characters, the premise of his film is not something to be amused at. The film’s message is slapping us in the face. Don’t Look Up has been defamed for being “a disaster movie in more ways than one” by Rolling Stone, and criticised for “stat[ing] the obvious as if everyone else is too stupid to realise it” – and, I’d be inclined to agree if what the film heeds wasn’t happening right now. In a world where (ex) Presidents are climate change deniers and anti-mask and anti-vaxx misinformation is widespread, it is hard to dismiss McKay’s satire as simply absurd. If McKay’s message seems too “obvious,” it is because it should be. Like a comet that cannot be stopped by a clever song by Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), climate change becomes the clear metaphor in McKay’s narrative. 

In fact, those deeming Don’t Look Up as a “disaster” do seem to be proving McKay’s point: McKay’s intention was not to create a sugar-coated distance from his message but to present it as a cold reality. In the same way that politicians and the media dismiss Dr. Mindy and Kate Dibiasky as too serious, it feels like McKay himself predicts and satirises reactions to his film. Yes, McKay’s satire is unsubtle and brash. It is also, at times, rushed and feels more akin to a semi-educational video shown in science class. It could even be said to sensationalise a real-world catastrophe. But, if one overlooks the fact that because it blurs the line so haphazardly between fantasy and realism it becomes difficult to judge where the allegory ends and doomsday begins, Don’t Look Up bears an important message (saved by outstanding acting). 

When General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) charges Dr. Mindy, Dr. Oglethorpe and Dibiasky for free snacks at The White House, the gesture seems pointless. However, once Dibiasky discovers they had been scammed, it emphasises McKay’s overriding message: to question. While Isherwell and the President sway the public from the truth, they secure survival on another planet. If there is one thing Mark Rylance spine-chilling performance shows is that the Peters of this world will thrive in destruction. McKay accurately reflects how humanity has reacted to crises. Shooting at the comet with a gun at the end of the film, Benedict Drank (Ron Perlman) exclaims “you’ll never take me alive!”. Don’t Look Up is begging its viewers to stop politicising science-to Look Up. 

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