In the late 1990s, Hollywood was in the grip of a disaster film revival – echoing their first explosion in the 1970s. With CGI beginning to really show its potential, directors were striving to outdo each other in making the most amount of stuff crumble to pieces on screen. This was the time of Roland Emmerich. This was the time of Michael Bay.
In 1998, the disaster genre got so saturated that audiences were treated to two separate movies about asteroids on a direct collision course with Earth: Armageddon (directed by Michael Bay), and Deep Impact (directed by Mimi Leder). 23 years later, Adam McKay has written and directed his own celestial extinction film for the modern age, and its heart may be in the right place, even if its head isn’t.
Don’t Look Up is the story of scientists Kate Dibiasky and Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. They are the first to discover a comet 9 kilometers across heading right for Earth, with an estimated time of impact barely 6 months away. While previous films in this genre put most of the focus on humanity’s space missions sent to stop the threat, Don’t Look Up is far more interested in satirising the political machinations behind the efforts to stop the comet.
If you’re expecting this to be a slyly written, laser focused dig at the subject, then you’re out of luck.
Don’t Look up takes aim at a vast range of facsimiles of real world people and situations, and hits them with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It is understandable, given the craziness of real-world events over the last two years, that audiences may have grown desensitised to some of these elements, and so perhaps McKay felt they needed such a clearly painted picture to see the craziness of it all. Unfortunately the choice to paint so many targets with such a broad brush just blurs the film’s message.
The message we’re left with is a simple one:
The human race is so hung up on our own self interests that we’ll ignore the science right in front of our eyes if it raises an inconvenient truth. Leaders scheme, businessmen exploit, scientists are brushed off and the masses are fed so many conflicting media stories they don’t know what to believe.
All the characters are cut from pretty standard cloth, and aside from Dibiasky and Mindy, aren’t particularly memorable. Jonah Hill is here, playing the same Jonah Hill character he’s been playing for two decades. Those who aren’t sick of that yet will probably laugh at his Chief of Staff role. Meryl Streep is confident as ever in her Presidential role, serving as the main instigator and antagonist to the film’s plans to avert disaster. Ariana Grande puts in a great performance as a dim-witted but ultimately caring popstar who does what she can to raise awareness about society’s injustices.
That just about sums up the film itself, too. It’s marketed as a black comedy, but in practice it’s little more than a series of blunt condemnations of discount versions of celebrities while the scientists look on stunned and horrified, and occasionally hyperventilating. There are running gags involving the price of snacks, and an animal with a bizarre name, but they, along with most of the other jokes, fall pretty flat.
Normally I’d recommend you stick around for the post-credit scenes, but Don’t Look Up has two that both evaporate whatever impact the film’s message still had up to then, since they both work against what the film is trying to say, all for one joke each that both fail to land. Don’t Look Up may seem to think it has a lot to say, but it’s hard to imagine it still being talked about in 20 years the same way that Armageddon is, for instance.
My FAVOURITE feature of Don’t Look Up…
…is its baby steps towards acknowledging the world beyond the U.S. This has been a real problem in the 90s Hollywood disaster films. In Independence Day, the rest of the world sat on its hands waiting for the U.S. to come up with the solution, while in The Day After Tomorrow, the President refers to every country on the planet beneath New York’s longitude as a 3rd world country. Nice. In Don’t Look Up however, there is a rival mission to stop the comet, but it is made clear that the joint India-China-Russian project is only instigated when the U.S. locks those countries out of its own plans.
There’s no word about the ESA or any other country trying to stop the comet. The rival launch explodes on the launchpad anyway, and is never mentioned again. It’s slightly better than the last generation of disaster films, but it’s still a shame, as seeing another nation’s launch get as far as orbit before getting swatted out of the sky by a U.S. launch interceptor could have brought a whole new level of ruthlessness to Streep’s President.
There’s a moment in the film where Lawrence’s Kate is being interviewed, and knows she has an incredibly important warning to tell everyone but loses control and yells at the camera instead, and is branded as an idiot ever-after. Once the film is over, it’s hard not to think of that scene and how it’s perhaps the only truly subtle moment in the film, because it is here where the film unintentionally ends up mocking itself.
Don’t Look Up is currently available to watch on Netflix Australia.
Feature photo cover by Impawards found here