Movies about giant things hurdling through space toward Earth are almost as plentiful as the stars in the sky. “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact” and “Judgment Day” all pose end-of-the-world scenarios but none have the satirical edge of “Don’t Look Up.” The darkly comedic movie, now in theatres but coming soon to Netflix, paints a grim, on-the-nose picture of how the world responds to a crisis.
Jennifer Lawrence is PhD candidate Dr. Kate Dibiasky, a student astronomer who discovers a comet the size of Mount Everest aimed directly at our planet. Her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes to the alarming conclusion that the comet will collide with Earth in six months and fourteen days in what he calls an “extinction level event.”
They take their concerns to NASA and the White House, but are met with President Janie Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) concerns about optics, costs and the up-coming mid-term elections. “The timing is just disastrous,” she says. “Let’s sit tight and assess.”
With the clock ticking to total destruction Dibiasky and Mindy go public, but their dire warnings on the perky news show “The Rip”—“We keep the bad news light!”—go unheeded. Social media focusses on Dibiasky’s panic, creating memes of her face, while dubbing Mindy the Bedroom Eyed Doomsday Prophet.
As the comet hurdles toward Earth the world becomes divided between those willing to Look Up and do something about the incoming disaster and the deniers who think that scientists “want you to look up because they are looking down their noses at you.”
Chaos breaks out, and the division widens as the comet closes in on its target.
It is not difficult to find parallels between the events in “Don’t Look Up” and recent world occurrences. Director and co-writer Adam McKay explores the reaction to world affairs through a lens of Fake News, clickbait journalism, skepticism of science, political spin and social media gone amok. In fact, the topics McKay hits on don’t really play like satire at all. The social media outrage, bizarro-land decisions made by people in high offices and the influence of tech companies all sound very real world, ripped out of today’s newspapers.
It’s timely, but perhaps too timely. Social satire is important, and popular—“Saturday Night Live” has done it successfully for decades—but “Don’t Look Up,” while brimming with good ideas, often feels like an overkill of familiarity. The comet is fiction, at least I hope it is, but the reaction to it and the on-coming catastrophe feels like something I might see on Twitter just before the lights go down in the theatre.
It feels a little too real to be pure satire. There are laughs throughout, but it’s the serious questions that resonate. When Mindy, on TV having his “Network” moment, rages, “What the hell happened to us? What have we done to ourselves and how do we fix it?” the movie becomes a beacon. The satire is comes easily—let’s face it, the world is full of easy targets—but it’s the asking of hard questions and in the frustration of a world gone mad, when McKay’s point that we’re broken and don’t appreciate the world around us, shines through.
Despite big glitzy Hollywood names above the title and many laugh lines, “Don’t Look Up” isn’t escapism. It’s a serious movie that aims to entertain but really wants to make you think.