Within a span of two days, we have two big-budget Hollywood releases that tell us humanity is doomed. Both The Matrix Resurrections, released on December 22, and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, released on Friday on Netflix, concludes that humans are too happy and selfish to want to snap out of their denial about our present-day horrors of late capitalism, economic precarity, political unrest, and climate change.
McKay’s satire Don’t Look Up primarily revolves around the last of these concerns, but also addresses the others. The film unfolds as a funny and horrifying allegory of how world leaders, corporations, and big media is dealing with global warming and its consequences. McKay and co-writer David Sirota, who is the editor-at-large at American socialist magazine Jacobin, accomplish this by giving the movie’s characters the challenge of surviving a destructive comet that will hit the Earth in six months. By expediting the process of imminent destruction that climate change is expected to bring, McKay and Sirota attempt to narrow down, predict, and comment on global reactions to cataclysmic events.
Watch Don’t Look Up trailer:
McKay who has been on a roll, turning anti-capitalist critiques into popular Hollywood films, starting with The Big Short and following it with Vice, delivers mostly pitch-perfect satire. Don’t Look Up follows two astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who embark on a media tour to inform the world about the comet. The tour turns increasingly bizarre and spins out of control as the world obviously misses their message.
First, they meet President Orlean (Meryl Streep), whose Donald Trump-like behaviour probably appears less crude because of her gender. Her Chief of Staff is her hyper-materialistic son Jason (Jonah Hill) who frequently comments on her mom’s hotness. “Keep it simple, no math”, scientist Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) advises the astronomers about briefing the pea-brained Orleans. They initially brush off Mindy and Dibiasky’s concerns but come around when Prsident Orlean gets involved in a sex scandal, for which she plans to fix her image by turning the comet-destroying mission into her Go-America moment.
Are Sirota and McKay suggesting that a woman president would not have been any better, contrary to what Hilary Clinton-stans think? On President Orlean’s desk is a photo featuring Bill Clinton giving her a kiss.
The Orleans’ plans to destroy the comet are soon compromised by their mega-donor, tech mogul Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who tells the White House that there are $140 trillion worth of useful minerals in the comet, so it should be allowed to hit earth.
Dibiasky is made to go “off the grid” by the authorities because she rants on television about the craziness and selfishness of everyone around her. However, Mindy becomes an overnight media sensation because of his handsome looks and genial personality. One of his fans declare he is an A.I.L.F (Astronomer I’d Like To F**k).
Among the characters Dibiasky-Mindy meet are a duo of cheerful news show presenters, played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. Ron Perlman plays a veteran American soldier, who is unapologetic about his racism and sexism. Ariana Grande plays a popstar, and Himesh Patel plays the kind of internet content writer that gives journalism a bad name.
As the comet gets closer, the populace is polarised into two camps: “just look up”, backed by Mindy and Dibiasky, and “don’t look up”, backed by the Orleans and Isherwell. When Mindy challenges Isherwell about the scientific validity of his plan, Isherwell rebukes Mindy for considering him a “businessman” instead of a visionary, and calls Mindy a “lifestyle idealist”, a conclusion based on Isherwell’s data analysis about Mindy’s online behaviour. (Isherwell also predicts that President Orlean will die from something called a “Brontorec”, which has a superb punchline that appears at the end of the movie).
While the patriots bash Mindy and Dibiasky for being “Marxists waving the word science”, Jason doubles down on the government’s anti-intellectual and anti-science stance. In a rally, he says there are three kinds of people: the working class i.e., their supporters, the “cool rich” i.e., themselves, and then the others who think they are better. With the end of the world appearing nearer than ever, Dibiasky enters a desperate romantic situation with street-skater Yule (Timothee Chalamet). A scene featuring the lovebirds answers why more and more people are getting married during the pandemic.
Both McKay’s film and the HBO show Succession, which he has executive-produced, makes me wonder if we can even call this satire, when so much of the behaviour exhibited by these characters is close to what we see in reality. In a world that has experienced the Donald Trump presidency, can anything appear more satirical?
McKay’s filmmaking style, combining disjointed images and videos to communicate a point in the style of Soviet montage theory, really captures the chaotic way in which we consume and comprehend news and culture today. The film also made me think of Mike Judge’s superb dystopian satire Idiocracy, released in 2006. It is set in 2505 America, a corporatised nation hooked on mindless entertainment, sex, and violence, as the world’s collective IQ has hit rock bottom. Don’t Look Up is probably how the 21st century would have been like in the world of Idiocracy.
Don’t Look Up
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet, Jonah Hill and others