Producers: Adam McKay and Kevin Messick Director: Adam McKay Screenplay: Adam McKay Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Tomer Sisley, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert Joy, Hettienne Park, Connor Sweeney and Robert Radochia Distributor: Netflix
Adam McKay offers a riff on the sad state of contemporary American politics and media via a spoof on disaster movies in “Don’t Look Up,” and though his approach—as in his earlier attempts at “serious” satire, “The Big Short” and “Vice”—is heavy-handed rather than sharp, enough zingers land for it to squeeze by. One can go back to “Dr. Strangelove” again to remind yourself of how this sort of black doomsday comedy can be done at the highest level.
McKay’s script hearkens back to the two earth-threatening-celestial-behemoth pictures that appeared almost simultaneously in 1998 (a case of lesser minds thinking alike). Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact,” about a menacing comet starring Robert Duvall, was released on May 8, and Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” with Bruce Willis and a big asteroid, followed on July 1. The former is usually deemed superior, though not by much; the latter was more financially successful. McKay opts for the comet scenario, not that it matters much.
While scanning the skies with Hawaii’s Subaru Telescope, Michigan State grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers the comet that will be named after her hurtling toward earth. She and her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) calculate the monster’s huge size as well as its speed and trajectory, concluding that it will smash into the earth in a bit over six months with planet-destroying impact.
Their attempt to bring the catastrophic truth to the attention of the authorities takes them to[FS1] Dr. Teddy Oglethrope (Rob Morgan), head of the U.S. Planetary Defense Coordination Office, who brings them to Washington to brief President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). She and Jason (Jonah Hill), her buffoonish son and chief-of-staff, put them off, more concerned about upcoming midterm elections and a controversial Supreme Court appointment, and so Dibiasky and Mindy go to the press. That has little effect because administration officials initially dispute their evidence, and so they go on a top-rated TV show, The Daily Rip; there the happy-talk repartee of its hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry), who are more interested in the romantic squabbles of pop stars Riley Bina and DJ Chello (Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi), drive Kate to distraction, and she delivers a frantic warning about the impending disaster that leads to her being branded on social media as a kook; dropping her, her boyfriend (Himesh Patel) says she’s crazy. Shy, laconic Mindy, however, is considered sexy; Brie comes on to him, and he cheats on his wife (Melanie Lynskey) with her.
Meanwhile Orlean changes her tune, and thinking the comet a useful political tool, mounts a major NASA operation to destroy or divert it, handing command to a blustering ex-military man General Drask (Ron Perlman, channeling Bruce Willis’ Harry Stamper, or Slim Pickens’ Colonel Kong, or both) with a penchant for making inappropriate remarks. But the mission is abruptly scrubbed after launch when Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), an Orlean supporter who’s the genius behind the all-powerful BASH Corporation—read Apple—informs the President that the comet is actually a boon, since it contains all sorts of useful minerals. He proposes an elaborate drone strike to break it up into smaller bits that can be allowed to fall to earth to be harvested to the country’s benefit. She naturally agrees, since the benefit will accrue to folks like Isherwell, and they can freeze other countries out entirely.
That leads to a political split between those who support Orlean’s policy—embodied in her “Don’t Look Up” campaign, advising that folks just ignore the facts and treat the comet as though it didn’t exist—and the opposing “Just Look Up” movement, urging people to believe their own eyes as the comet approaches. The reference to Trumpian truth-denial is inescapable. The narrative question, of course, is whether Isherwell’s BASH-controlled mission will work.
One other major plot element is shoehorned into the movie, rather inelegantly even by its standards (which allow for a lot of hectic montages of pervasive social media posts on BASH phones): a romance that develops between Kate and Yule (Timothée Chalamet), a skater dude who recognizes her after she’s taken a job in a convenience store. His presence provides a major element of the curiously schmaltzy turn the picture takes before the big finale.
The starry cast is all game, but given the bluntness of McKay’s script they’re all reduced to the level of caricature of the most obvious sort. That doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be quite funny. Particularly amusing is Rylance, whose depiction of a Steve Jobs-like demigod whose weirdness is matched only by his greed for money and power suggests what Andy Warhol might have been like had he gone into the technology business. Lawrence has the unenviable task of playing audience surrogate, the only really stable person in the bunch (who, of course, is branded as a nut case), and though she tries hard, it’s a thankless role. Apart from the above-the-title actors there are cameos scattered throughout the picture, one by a star playing the lead of an upcoming disaster blockbluster called “Total Devastation” that he continues hawking on TV even as the title is coming all too true; it will especially appeal to fans of the MCU.
“Don’t Look Up” isn’t one of those bloated $200 million special effects superhero movies that can become the order of the day; the production isn’t chintzy, but the visuals are a garish, cartoonish look that befits the material (and its mode of distribution). The effects supervised by Raymond Gieringer are okay, but hardly cutting-edge. On the more mundane level, Clayton Hartley’s production design is kept pretty small-scaled, even in the Washington segments, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography isn’t especially flashy. Hank Corwin’s editing frankly gets garbled on occasion, and he does let some episodes—like a late dinner sequence—drag on, but he mainly keeps the convolutions clear, and Nicholas Britell’s score mimics the clichés of the genre the movie’s satirizing.
McKay made his name working with Will Ferrell, and he hasn’t escaped the anarchically silly spirit that marked their collaborations as he’s tackled more socially significant subjects in his recent pictures. That makes “Don’t Look Up,” like its two immediate predecessors, an example of a project trying to make a big statement in an over-the-top zany style, a combination that he doesn’t pull off as well as some have—Kubrick being the best example. But especially if you’re in tune with his obvious political agenda, you’ll probably have fun with “Don’t Look Up,” even while regretting it wasn’t better.
And be sure to stay through the closing credits; in a movie with a lot of climaxes, the last jokes are among the best—almost as grimly funny as the opening card with one of the incomparable Jack Handey’s gruesome life-lessons. Let’s hope that Netflix won’t, in its usual fashion, cut off too abruptly to push viewers on to its next offering.