One of the more interesting movies of 2021 landed at the close of the year, and it is a movie which sums up the past two years perfectly. Netflix’s Don’t Look Up is a satirical, sci-fi comedy which on paper has all the ingredients to blow minds and engage millions. Starring Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett and (gulp!) Meryl Streep, not to mention the picture is written and directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short), you would think Don’t Look Up is a sure-fire smash. But you would be wrong, so very wrong.
One thing I must point out is that Don’t Look Up is very clever and the cast are formidable – if not at times slightly wasted. The problem with this movie, which thankfully did not land in a cinema nearby, is that it polarizes its audience far too much and becomes too entrenched in satire and forgets to be entertaining. Sure, people who watch the news constantly and are compelled to stay up-to-date with everything that has happened politically through this pandemic will get the running jokes. However, those of us who take a mild interest in current affairs and are trying to get on with our lives will not view Don’t Look Up as entertainment. It is as simple as that, and it all lies in the plot.
An astronomy PHD student, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), discovers a comet hurtling towards Earth. With the help of her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), they come to the conclusion that this comet is a “planet killer” due to impact Earth in a little over six months – not the usual basis for a comedy. When a meeting is arranged with POTUS (Streep), the duo are disregarded as “fear mongers”. They go on to leak the news to the press but are generally ignored, that is until the President is involved in a sex scandal and sees the comet as an opportunity to divert unwanted attention in the lead up to re-election. In the meantime, Dr. Mindy becomes a regular on frivolous daytime television, making him into a celebrity, while the emotional Kate Dibiasky becomes a derided social-media meme.
A plan is hatched to fire rockets packed with explosives into the comet, headed by gruff American hero Colonel Benedict Drask (Ron Pearlman). Though, mid-flight, the plan is scrapped after an intervention from creepy tech billionaire Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). Instead of deflecting the “planet killer”, the powers that be decide to mine it after discovering trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals and rare elements of its surface.
This causes a split in society, with Mindy and Dibiasky urging people to “look up” and recognise the impending danger, and the President and others commanding society to “don’t look up” as there is nothing to fear and money to be made. With an extremely twisted ending that admittedly hits harder than the said comet, that roughly sums up the plot of Don’t Look Now. And here is why it fails.
If you replace the word comet with COVID, it all becomes very clear. This movie reflects far too much of what is happening right now, and so does not offer escapism through art – it just reminds us of our own present failings as a society. From the split in the general public to the widespread denial, it all cuts too close. Also, the influence of tech billionaires and social media seen in the film stings with the truth and becomes annoying.
The running gags based on capitalism and military spending become tired very quickly. Furthermore, creating celebrity doctors who become more than just a moral compass is something which will be instantly recognisable. Although asking many questions, Don’t Look Up doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, the most vital being – Why do we allow people who have no qualifications to have so much influence over our lives?
Don’t Look Up misses the mark made by other satirical classics. For example, Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), one which I enjoyed in my youth because it was both entertaining and satirical. As well, Mike Nichols‘ Catch 22, based on the anti-war novel of the same name, managed to keep that balance right and not tip the scales.
Don’t Look Up can’t help but tip the scales, leaning towards political and societal piss-taking far too much. It’s a movie that some will love and others will hate. In short: marmite. You may like it, you may hate it, but you won’t know ’till you try it.