The recent online-only Netflix release Don’t Look Up falls into a small but prestigious category: that of apocalyptic comedies, films that use the end of the world as a source of dark humour, harkening back to 1964 and Doctor Strangelove. The bizarre comedy of Strangelove sets the tone for this unusual tale; in fact, there are more than a few, possibly deliberate, parallels between the two films. Writer and director Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short) has produced a half-serious, half-mocking disaster film that uses the threat of planetary destruction as a device to effectively satirise… almost everything. American politics, news media, internet trends, corporate influence on public policy, and above all the modern tendency to trivialise even the most serious subjects, are all held up to nonstop ridicule.
Michigan astronomers Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make a horrifying discovery, a huge comet on a direct path to Earth. They contact the appropriate authorities and are brought to the White House to notify the US president and staff. At this point, the plot stops being reasonable, as the pair and their liaison Dr Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) meet with one absurd obstacle after another. Their efforts to have the threat dealt with, or even to inform the public, are waylaid by trivialities, by political and economic considerations, and by media so addicted to frivolity that they are unable to give the matter the attention it deserves. The public reaction is summed up by glimpses of flippant hashtags and memes, which are the most common response to each horrifying warning of imminent doom.
The all-star cast is impressive, Lawrence exceptional as the angry and indignant would-be whistleblower, and DiCaprio believable as the well-intentioned but unworldly scientist. Meryl Streep is a treat in a smaller role as the fatuous and self-serving President Orlean, while Jonah Hill is hilariously awful as her obnoxious son and highly unqualified Chief of Staff. The film has also attracted major lights in small roles, including Timothée Chalamet as a skateboarder and science fan; Cate Blanchett as a glamorous but shallow television interviewer and Ariana Grande as, essentially, a version of herself. Acting and character interaction are definitely the film’s strong points.
The humour of the movie is often broad and preposterous, but sharp enough to keep its dark edge. In fact, at times the mockery is a little too specific, the characters a bit too close to real, well known political figures, and the metaphors too obvious. Its mockery of common attitudes and approaches to serious material does better. The satirical references are almost too thick on the ground to deal with at times, which becomes a liability and buries some of the film’s best material, but they can also be vicious and disturbingly on the mark.
The film’s best satire, however, is daffy comedy which is, at the same time, so accurate it is closer to re-enactments than sarcasm – such as the two scientists’ first attempt to announce their findings on television, only to have the dire facts swallowed up in chat-show nonsense. The politicisation of the oncoming comet also seems to be ripped from recent headlines. Most enjoyably scathing, and weirdly recognisable, is the interference by quasi-scientific tycoon Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a sort of demented composite of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and a new-age cult leader, who tries to turn the approaching comet into a money-making scheme, at the world’s peril.
The director allows Isherwell a fanciful, over-credits fairy-tale ending, which lightens the mood but does not detract from the ruthlessness of the parody. The film’s looming disaster is clearly meant to represent the threat of climate change, the two astronomers to stand for scientists frustrated with trying to get their message across, but the film’s earnest message goes a bit beyond that subject. It delves amusingly but pointedly into our way of looking at vital issues, not objectively or rationally, but as light entertainment or a way to aggravate perceived political enemies. The key question that peeks through the zany comedy is Dr Mindy’s plaintive query, “What have we done to ourselves? How can we fix it?”.