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Don't Look Up

Released 2021. Director: Adam McKay

IMAGINE A PLANE NOSE-DIVING INTO A CRASH and the pilot bursts out of the cockpit screaming “We’re all going to die!” You’d expect the passengers to scream in panic at their impending doom – yet they barely look up from their phones, laugh and dismiss the crew as over-reacting.

Don’t Look Up is built on a similar scenario. Not a plane plunging from the sky but a comet is hurtling our way. Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) are the ones who discover the planet killer and step out to warn that humanity is on course for extinction in only six months. "We're all going to die!" Again, you’d think people would go full-scale panic mode but no, the world plods on, not bothered. Meh.

The scientists try to warn the President but the White House pushes it down the list and says “sit tight and assess”. They go on TV to announce the news but the media is more interested in turning the dorky nerds into the butt of their jokes. Hey sciency guys, bit dramatic, aren't you? Surely we'll make it through. Now calm down.

If this doesn’t remind you of how residents of Earth are collectively shrugging off the climate crisis, you’re further gone than you realise. Don’t Look Up is a timely satire packed with a galaxy of stars around Leonardo and Jennifer including Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blachett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Rob Morgan, Michael Chiklis and many more. The blinding dazzle, however, could not camouflage a lack of wit and spark necessary to turn our existential threat into an effective social commentary and zingy comedy.

Writer-director Adam McKay struck gold when he used a similar formula for The Big Short (2016), skewering the economic meltdown and financial crisis of 2008 with a similar tone and a similarly star-studded cast. Whilst The Big Short has a packed script explaining the complex situation with first-class writing that’s not only illuminating but entertaining, Don’t Look Up suffers from cheap shots and a script that’s more interested in turning characters into stooges than telling a story about a life-and-death crisis with real comic flair.

McKay takes a serious subject, injects a dose of irony, twists it to fit into the comedy genre and by turns presents it straight-faced and with a knowing wink. The comet catastrophe can be an allegory for a number of issues confronting us at the moment besides the obvious climate crisis, and how the people in charge, and humanity in general, are not taking the threat seriously enough to save ourselves.

Is the movie a cynical look at our collective indifference? Not entirely. There’s truth in its storytelling, though it lacks dramatic and comedic punch. Considering the weight of the subject matter, it's also very tame, at times overly comical, as with the character played by Jonah Hill, White House Chief of Staff who’s a shockingly ill-informed buffoon advising the President in matters that concerns the survival of the planet. Oh, but wait, maybe McKay is not even trying to be funny here.

Science gets no respect and by extension, this applies to the pandemic and the hordes of anti-science crazies who keep peddling falsehoods and conspiracy theories. The astronomer played by Leonardo DiCaprio succumbs and is seduced by talk show host Cate Blachett, literally getting in bed with the enemy.

The job of saving the world is handed over to a technology titan with more money and resources than the government to land on the comet to extract precious minerals. Who cares if the space rock is about to smash us in the face if we can hammer some expensive commodity out of it?

Governments are short-sighted, politically expedient and have no visions for the future. These aspects are not far-fetched but they are exaggerated for effect, which fit better in an all-out parody like the Austin Powers movies. When all the various target groups have been set up and mocked, trivialities and absurdities thrown up and laughed at, Don’t Look Up becomes rather one-dimensional. Certainly nowhere near the same league as Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1964) using satire to address different troubles. Don’t Look Up is more concerned with dressing up the messengers, and not nearly enough time crafting the message itself.


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