Why Don’t Look Up Was an Important Failure of a Film
The impending end of the world is upon us, yet it seems that nobody cares. Despite overwhelming evidence of humanity’s demise, warnings from scientists and experts have been ignored and misinterpreted. Trust in experts, scientists, and even the government has eroded, even when the threat is imminent. This raises the question: what has happened to us? Is this a reflection of our current state regarding climate change, or is it the plot of the 2021 Academy Award-nominated film, Don’t Look Up?
Director Adam McKay uses the fictional discovery of a planet-killing comet hurtling towards Earth as an allegory for our current political and ecological situation. While the film’s premise is brilliant, its delivery falls short. McKay has had an interesting career, starting with successful comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, then moving to more dramatic films like Vice. Don’t Look Up attempts to tackle climate change through a satirical lens with a star-studded cast, but it struggles to find its footing.
The film follows two Michigan scientists played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover the apocalyptic comet with almost a 100% chance of destroying Earth. They then embark on a frustrating journey to get anyone to care, from the dismissive media to the Trump-esque president (played by Meryl Streep). While the cast is impressive, some of the stars are wasted in largely insignificant roles, with too many subplots and characters preventing any buildup of tension or emotional investment.
While the film is not particularly dramatic or funny, it does make some important observations about our current moment. The director is obviously frustrated that the world continues to ignore experts and scientists on a wide range of crucial subjects, including climate change and the coronavirus. The film portrays a world where nobody wants to listen to upsetting facts and where conspiracy theories run rampant.
The film’s best moment is when DiCaprio’s character has a nervous breakdown while giving a speech on national television. The speech is a searing indictment of the present age’s division and frustrating gridlock. It captures the incredulity scientists and those who believe them feel when their urgent warnings are ignored by large swaths of the population. It’s an angry, despairing shout into the cultural void, and one hopes that some hear its echo.
Another poignant moment occurs when the comet’s crash course is completely visible in the night sky. Humanity only generally reacts to catastrophes when they’re visible, highlighting the sad truth that we often ignore problems until they are impossible to ignore.
In conclusion, while Don’t Look Up has an excellent concept, its execution falls short. However, it does make some important observations about our current moment and the need to listen to experts and scientists. The film serves as a reminder that we need to be able to hear each other and work together to address the urgent problems facing our world.
The world is endingand nobody cares. People have had a timeline for this based on the nearly incontrovertible proof of humanity’s demise, and the desperate warnings of scientists and experts have been willfully ignored and aggressively misinterpreted. People don’t agree with experts, scientists, or the government much, even when the threat of the species is imminent. What’s happened to us?
Is this a description of the state of the world regarding climate change or a plot synopsis of the 2021 Academy Award-nominated Don’t Look Up? That is the question director Adam McKay wants to ask audiences. McKay uses the fictional discovery of an impending, planet-killing comet and its six-month course directly toward Earth as an allegory for the current political and ecological situation. Unfortunately, the movie’s delivery doesn’t live up to its excellent concept.
Updated: June 20, 2023: To keep this article fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, this article has been updated with additional material by Evan Lewis.
McKay has had an interesting career. Beginning with his extremely successful comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Step Brothers), McKay has since moved to more dramatic films (Vice) and hybrids of the two (The Big Short). Don’t Look Up attempts to do for climate change what The Big Short did for the 2008 financial crisis—tackle a difficult subject through a satirical lens with an incredible and massive cast of stars, but where The Big Short succeeded, Don’t Look Up struggles.
The film follows two Michigan scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, the latter of whom discovers the apocalyptic comet with nearly a 100% chance of destroying Earth. They begin a long, protracted attempt at getting anyone to care, from the government and its Trump-esque president (played by a wasted but wonderfully warped Meryl Streep) to the dismissive media.
Countless stars fill largely insignificant roles throughout the scientists’ frustratingly inconsequential quest. Jonah Hill improvises his way through a few scenes as Streep’s son and Chief of Staff, Tyler Perry appears as a petty caricature of a talk show host, Arianna Grande has an utterly superfluous subplot and musical moment with Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey is generally absent as DiCaprio’s wife, Timothee Chalomet and Chris Evans show up for literally no reason at all, Rob Morgan is thankless as an unnecessary sidekick, and Ron Perlman is ridiculously over-the-top as a politically incorrect astronaut.
When a film is stuffed with so many stars, it’s hard for any one of them to shine. However, Cate Blanchett and Mark Rylance are incredible in very specific, odd roles. Blanchett is the other co-host of an overly peppy, blissfully ignorant talk show who begins an affair with ‘sexy scientist’ DiCaprio. She is perfect in every scene she’s in, whether she’s monologuing about the presidents she’s slept with, lusting after the schlubby Midwestern scientist, or embracing her hilariously unsentimental and cynical attitude toward the world. Rylance gives one of the strongest performances of the year as an extremely powerful tech giant who is a third Mister Rogers, a third Steve Jobs, and a third Joe Biden. It’s small, but it’s such a weird and masterfully crafted role by the Oscar-winning actor.
Aside from those two performative highlights (and a reliably funny running joke about a Pentagon general who charges people for free White House snacks), the film is surprisingly unfunny, given McKay’s pedigree and the actors he’s assembled. The premise of the movie plays out like a Funny or Die sketch extended out so long that the joke becomes unfunny really quickly. The jokes are also super obvious, with no real nuance to them.
This is due to a variety of reasons—the subject matter gets extremely dark, and the film practically abandons humor completely in its last half-hour; DiCaprio and Lawrence are tasked with carrying the film, but neither is particularly funny (though the former is genuinely good at the anxiety and banality his character requires, and Lawrence excels at snark); McKay seems to have no interest in directing the movie with the same comical energy he is usually so good at.
Tonally At Odds
If the film isn’t funny, it’s also not particularly dramatic. Too many subplots, characters, and narrative cul-de-sacs prevent any buildup of tension or emotional investment. The film doesn’t take itself seriously enough to be dramatic, but its subject matter and trajectory are hardly funny. McKay knows how to fuse comedy and drama excellently, but he simply doesn’t pull it off here.
None of this is to say that the film is a total failure; in fact, some people actually loved it. The premise is actually kind of brilliant, allowing McKay to dissect the current moment through his fictional scenario. The director is obviously angry and frustrated that the world continues to ignore, bicker over, or attack experts and scientists on a wide range of currently crucial subjects, from the coronavirus to climate change, and he channels this through some of his characters.
“You know how many ‘the world is ending’ meetings we’ve had over the years?” the president asks the scientists mockingly before telling them to “wait and assess,” despite the comet’s soon impact. Someone in the media reports that “Jewish billionaires invented this comet so that the government could take away our liberty,” echoing actual statements from conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. “Keep it light,” one of the talk show hosts says as the scientists prepare to tell the world about their planet-killing findings. “Sadness is bad,” the tech billionaire tells people. It’s clear that nobody wants to listen to upsetting facts.
DiCaprio’s character gets caught up in this madness, first in disbelief and then by getting sucked into the celebrity culture which surrounds him until realizing that nobody is doing anything to prevent the coming end of the world. His anxiety builds until he has a nervous breakdown of sorts while giving a speech on national television in what is easily the film’s best scene. DiCaprio himself worked and reworked the speech with McKay roughly 15 times, and his attentive commitment paid off. The speech is a searing indictment of the contemporary moment when people can’t agree on vaccinations, masks, environmental catastrophe, politics, and pretty much anything else.
Sometimes, we need to just be able to say things to one another, we need to be able to hear things. If we can’t all agree at the bare minimum that a giant comet the size of mount Everest hurtling its way towards planet earth is not a good thing, then what the hell happened to us? I mean, my God, how do we even talk to each other, what have we done to ourselves, how do we fix it? We should’ve deflected this comet when we had the chance, but we didn’t do it, I don’t know why we didn’t do it […] I’m sure people aren’t even going to listen to what I just said because they have their own political ideology, but I assure you, I am not on one side or the other, I’m just telling you the truth!
This speech, while reminiscent of Network’s “mad as hell” moment and somewhat derivative, is the resuscitated heart of a previously lifeless film, waking it up as a dark, depressing drama (which nonetheless still digresses into painfully unfunny scenes of ‘comedy’). The speech is an excellent encapsulation of the present age’s division and frustrating gridlock, capturing the incredulity scientists and those who believe them feel when their urgent warnings are ignored by large swaths of the population. It’s an angry, despairing shout into the cultural void, and one hopes that some hear its echo.
Another interesting scene occurs in the homestretch of the movie when the comet’s crash course is completely visible in the night sky. Traffic stops and the busy world pauses, climbing out of their cars and looking out their windows at the thing they didn’t believe in. This illuminates the sad truth that humanity only generally reacts to catastrophes when they’re visible and happening long after warnings were made. The most dramatic effects of climate change are currently not totally visible (at least not from the vantage point of most of the United States; it’s a different story in Madagascar, Indiaand the Arctic), leading many to dismiss the dire predictions and governments to postpone drastic interventions. Unfortunately, it will be too late to fix much when the worst happens, something the film makes abundantly clear.
Movies Don’t Always Need To Be Good To Make An Impact
The nature of Netflix being one of the most readily available streaming platforms available to audiences meant that Don’t Look Up was seen by a great many people. Even if the movie itself might not have worked as a narrative film, its secondary intention to get people to talk about climate change can be said to be fulfilled. So it may not work as a film, but it did work as a starting point.
Climate action has kind of been brought back to the forefront of general audiences; in fact, the denial of the scientific method altogether became a hot topic for months after its release. It particularly struck a chord with those who were pro-vaccination during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and believed the experts that created and distributed the vaccines specific to that virus. Much of the debate reflected the events in Don’t Look Up, albeit less exaggerated than the satirical aspects put on display. McKay even put his money where his mouth was countless times with donations and activism, which regarded the state of the planet, and what we as humans could do to prevent imminent disaster. He even pledged to triple his donations to Just Stop Oil, a group known for its disruption in the name of activism.
This is an important precedent to set when making a film with these themes. McKay could have easily thrown stones and hidden his hands after the mixed reception, but he stood firm in his beliefs and continued to push for ideals that would only benefit Earth and its future inhabitants. There are plenty of examples of directors who (debatably) contradicted themselves in word, or in their work, since the dawn of cinema, but he is determined not to be one of those names. Sometimes a good person can make a bad film, and it’s important to separate the two. While the film itself might not be remembered as one of the classics or the best work of anyone involved, it did speak to audiences at that moment in time.
Noble Effort Does Not Make a Good Film
Technically, McKay and Netflix have put together a really polished production. Everything looks great thanks to some perfect lighting, McKay’s typically playful use of onscreen text, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s excellent work. For some reason, though, McKay inserts a pointlessly lengthy amount of dull stock footage (plants, babies, lizards, etc.) for seemingly no reason; it’s actually laughable and probably not intentionally so.
Don’t Look Up is an honestly noble and necessary effort, creating a unique way to talk about things people usually either fight over or ignore entirely. Maybe the restrictions and pandemonium of the pandemic affected the film, or maybe McKay merely attempts to do too much here, his head and his heart pushing him to pack as much social commentary as he can into an already overstuffed movie. Whatever the reasons are, the result is an utter surprise—an unfunny, tiresome satire by a master comedian and satirist; a huge amount of excellent talent, almost entirely wasted; a brilliant, urgent allegory and heartfelt effort which falls apart on film. It’s odd to say that a film can be both important and fail, but Don’t Look Up manages to somehow do both.