Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’ misses big on its potential

Lifestyle | 8 Dec, 2021 |

The central metaphor of Don’t Look Up isn’t playing coy. A massive, “planet-killing” comet hurtles toward Earth, giving the entire human race just six months to live. Diverting the comet would take a herculean effort—but the White House doesn’t care, the media is playing it down, and half the American populace believes the comet isn’t real. Despite scientific certainty that the impact will be an extinction-level event, life goes on as if nothing’s wrong. I’ll give you one guess at what the movie’s going for.

Lucky for Don’t Look Up, political satire doesn’t need to be subtle. Exaggeration is a useful satirical tool. The most enduring image of Dr. Strangelove, the essential Cold War satire, is an Army Major straddling a phallic nuclear bomb. By blowing the subtext (masculine violence) out of proportion with the text (nuclear anxiety), the film makes a brainy, humorous point that’s obvious on its face. Suppose the bomb didn’t look like a giant phallus and its rider wasn’t hollering with delight, though—sans oversized subtext, the shot would have little to say beyond “yes, nuclear war is a threat.” That’s flaccid satire. It’s also the kind of thing that permeates Don’t Look Up.


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It hurts because there’s potential here. The comet is a simple but clever allegory for climate change, and the movie’s subjects are worthy targets: the non-response to a looming existential threat; the greed of oligarchs hoarding their riches before the doomsday clock strikes midnight. There’s a great satire buried in the concept. But Don’t Look Up takes the easy way out: exaggerating the text (“we’re not paying enough attention to climate change!”) without touching the subtext.

Take the movie’s approach to social media, for example. The script repeatedly falls back on the joke that Americans are too distracted by news of a celebrity breakup to pay attention to the comet. When a reputable newspaper publishes proof that humanity is doomed, the article gets less social media buzz than traffic reports and the weather. The subtext is that Americans were already too hopeless to entertain more bad news, but the movie doesn’t play that up nearly as much as the text— “nobody wants to acknowledge the problem!” Rather than dig a little deeper into societal woes, Don’t Look Up peddles several variations of “these idiots don’t want to face the facts.” That’s fine, I guess, if the goal is to pat the audience on the back for being smarter than climate change deniers, but it makes for an anemic two-plus hours of satire. We get it: CEOs and politicians are selfish, Americans are ignorant, and the world is in danger. Making those situations bigger and sillier doesn’t mean much unless you’re magnifying the root causes too.

Maybe the surface-level smugness would be easier to stomach if the movie were funnier. Alas, this is modern-day SNL-level stuff: easy political points, mildly amusing non sequiturs, and plenty of pandering to the youths. The only actors elevating the material are the ones leaning hard into silliness. Mark Rylance read the character description of “mild-mannered tech CEO” and adopted the most pejorative interpretation possible. He draws out his lines with dramatic deliberation, but in a weird, whispery voice, like he’s gone hoarse trying to convince people of his intelligence. The funniest of them all is Timothée Chalamet, who plays a skater boy/Twitch streamer/secret Christian named Yule. Between this and The French Dispatch, Chalamet has brought a memorably bizarre energy to his comedic roles this year. The hardest I laughed during Don’t Look Up was at his dopey excitement over fingerling potatoes.

The only striking images that Don’t Look Up brings to the table are still, quiet shots of the galaxy—planets against the vast backdrop of space. Bookending the noise of the movie’s biggest scenes, these images break up the hubbub like establishing shots of humanity’s widest context. The effect is an eerie ambivalence lurking in the atmosphere—this is nature writ large, and if a comet destroys our planet, that’s just the circle of life. At the movie’s best, particularly in its finale, it gives up the satire and surrenders to that tone. When it counts, its feelings go deeper than its thoughts. But most of the movie feels like its most embarrassing scene: Ariana Grande singing “listen to the experts” in a shameless bid to please liberal Oscar voters and win Best Original Song.

½   (1.5/5)

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