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Adam McKay’s Climate Change Satire, ‘Don’t Look Up,’ Bites Off More Than It Can Chew But Has Fun Doing It

Don’t Look Up, from Vice/The Big Short director Adam McKay, is a well-intended satire, about how American politicians and tech titans wouldn’t be able to stop being venal and self-interested long enough to save themselves, even if there was a comet heading straight for Earth. Think Armageddon in the style of Veep. It’s a great idea (with story credit to McKay and journalist David Sirota) whose execution doesn’t always live up to its premise, seemingly proving that accurate satire isn’t the same thing as a coherent story. Lots of the individual jokes work, but it seems to get caught up trying to make fun of so many different things that it neglects its own internal logic.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral student with severe art bangs who discovers a massive comet (a “planet killer,” as it’s described later) late one night while singing along to Wu-Tang during her shift manning the Suburu telescope. Dibiasky, who feels very much like a middle-aged white man’s idea of “cool hipster,” eventually alerts her advisor, Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a dowdy beard and enjoyably dorky Midwestern accent. Together they make the rounds, trying first to inform the public and then to get them to do something about it.

Their tour takes them first to Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which a title card informs us is a real office that actually exists. Rob Morgan plays Oglethorpe, an enjoyably idiosyncratic character who probably deserved more screen time than he gets.

McKay pulled this same sort of fourth-wall-breaking shtick in Vice and The Big Short, and I do enjoy it, within reason. It makes sense to be clear that the Planetary Defense Coordination Office is a real thing, because it sounds like something this kind of movie would invent. The bigger issue in Don’t Look Up is that there’s a dissonance between its almost painfully on-the-nose elements (aping the font and color schemes of MAGA hats and posters) and its unnecessarily fictionalized ones. In a scene in which a social media consultant discusses the engagement Mindy and Dibiaski received during a morning show segment, real social media platforms are all bowdlerized as “VroomVroom,” “Friendlink,” “Rabble,” and “Diddly,” in a way that feels both like a failed dad joke and almost deferentially courtly. Why not just say Facebook and Twitter? McKay doesn’t seem like a guy afraid of offending Mark Zuckerberg.

By contrast, the hosts of the morning show on which they appear are played brilliantly by Tyler Perry, who for all his corniness as a writer/director is still a pretty damned solid comedic actor, and Cate Blanchett, in a set of unnaturally white veneers and over-the-top TV makeup that somehow still make her look hot. Meryl Streep is similarly great as President Orlean (a callback to her playing Susan Orlean in Adaptation?), a sort of careerist hybrid Trump/Kamala more worried about the midterms than she is about the impending apocalypse, whose chief of staff is her dopey son, played wonderfully by Jonah Hill in what feels like a combination of his Inside SoCal character from SNL (“Dad, it’s just a kicker”) and his own “clean and rad and powerful” emails.

Just when it seems like Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy have finally gotten the president to act, she gets sidetracked by Peter Isherwell, a robotic tech tycoon played by Mark Rylance in another solid turn, as a character who’s clearly a riff on Jeff Bezos, with shades of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. The whole story turns on this shift, from the president’s decision to go with Isherwell’s pie-in-the-sky, enriching-the-rich plan to handle the comet, rather than follow the recommendations of scientists. It turns President Orlean into a pseudo-climate denier, with her new slogan, “Don’t Look Up” urging supporters to ignore the reality of the killer comet. On a satirical level, it’s easy to see what point McKay is trying to say here, about leaders putting profits ahead of saving the planet and treating a global crisis as just another geopolitical game.

But making a point and telling a story aren’t always the same thing, and it feels like McKay has cut some corners, giving the individual characters’ motivations and story arcs short shrift in favor of trying to lampoon as many things as possible. The classic Hollywood idea was that a global crisis would force an end to our petty squabblings, as seen in movies like Armageddon and Independence Day. This was probably based on the general cultural takeaway from World War II, that when the chips were down, we’d eventually come together and kill the fascists.

Now that we’ve seen firsthand that plenty of crises seem to have the opposite effect, factionalizing the populace, polarizing our experience of objective reality and seemingly driving everyone insane, it has manifested in our fiction. Children of Men and The Leftovers saw its characters slide into magical thinking, hostility, and cultism in response to societal upheaval, borne out in real life with things like QAnon and people getting really into crystals. Don’t Look Up clearly wants to be the comedic, more overtly satirical The Leftovers, but whereas The Leftovers was always character-first, Don’t Look Up feels more like a series of sketches. Which, while usually funny, don’t always maintain a consistent logic.

‘Don’t Look Up’ is available in select theaters December 10th, and hits Netflix December 24th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.