Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep
Director: Adam McKay
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
The end of the world is certainly no laughing matter but in the star-studded Don’t Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay sees the funny side of a looming disaster without ever losing sight of the sobering reality of mankind’s indifference to the threats that the planet faces.
With a cast to die for (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Mark Rylance and, what’s more, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep), Don’t Look Up, out on Netflix, hits the right buttons, pulls no punches and lands quite a few stinging jabs bang on target.
In the line of the film’s fire are power-crazed politicians, corporate czars and co-opted scientists peddling their convenient delusions to a crowd lulled and manipulated through news cycles aimed at achieving collective complacency and complicity. At first flush, the tone of the film wavers a bit, going back and forth between the subtle and precise to the superficial and wacky. That is clearly a part of the narrative design. What holds Don’t Look Up together is the witty and hard-hitting core of McKay’s screenplay.
Against the backdrop of a pandemic that refuses to go away and an ever-worsening global warming scenario, the points that the scathing satire makes are unfailingly relevant and urgent. To those that have turned brushing uncomfortable truths under the carpet into an industry, McKay’s delivery style may appear somewhat breathless and overly alarmist but nothing that the film places on the table can be dismissed as a figment of a fevered imagination running away from the facts on the ground.
Based on a story credited to David Sirota, editor of Jacobin and Bernie Sanders’ speechwriter for the 2020 presidential campaign, McKay’s bristling and bustling film mocks inept and self-serving politicians, dim-witted climate change deniers, self-absorbed and ratings-obsessed television show hosts and profit-chasing billionaires who believe that the world should be beholden to them for its existence.
Don’t Look Up fires a salvo at the movie industry, too. A director who has a blissfully bloated disaster actioner titled Total Devastation lined up for release grandly admits in a television interview that it is “a popcorn movie”. He sees that label as a badge of honour, which, of course, is absolutely understandable given the environment he and his ilk work in and the constituency they serve.
People are too distracted, too full of themselves or too dumb to read the writing on the wall, ask the right questions, and take remedial action where necessary. A recipe for ‘total devastation’. That is what Don’t Look Up takes swipes at. At one end of the spectrum are the realists who recognise what the world is heading towards. At the other is the ‘Don’t Look Up‘ and ‘everything is fine’ camp. In a manner that is admittedly reductionist but absolutely timely, Don’t Look Up captures the times we live in.
A Michigan State University astronomy student Kate Diabisky (Jennifer Lawrence), while working on a research paper, stumbles upon the existence of a comet “the size of Mount Everest”. It is hurtling towards the Earth and, as frenzied calculations reveal, is set to make impact in six months and 14 days with “the power of a billion Hiroshima bombs”.
In the company of a NASA official Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), decide to warn the American President and the public that Comet Diabisky – it is named after Kate – could end all life on the planet. They are met with apathy, scepticism and denial, first in that order and then with all of them bundled together.
A Trump-like President, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), is in the midst of a political crisis over a Supreme Court appointment. She and her son, Chief of Staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), make Kate and Randall wait for seven hours before sending them away. The next day, the President gives the astronomers 20 minutes to have their say. The administration pooh-poohs their warning.
Left with no other option, the Professor, quickly dubbed “America’s sexiest scientist”, and the angry PhD candidate go on a television morning show hosted by Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) to put their point across and shake the world out of its stupor.
For the anchors, Kate and Randall are just another pair of guests, just another story, on their show. They are far more excited about the break-up of a popstar (Ariana Grande in a cameo), who is in the studio to talk about her life and work, with her boyfriend (Scott Mescudi) than the fear that the end of the world might be nigh.
No wonder the two astronomers find themselves banging their heads against a wall. Kate is livid although, ironically, she is convinced that the people responsible for the sorry state of affairs “are not even smart enough to be as evil as you are giving them credit for”. Back home in Michigan, she begins a relationship with Yule (Chalamet), who shares her worldview despite his seemingly conservative religious upbringing.
Randall has to reckon with the wiles and clout of tech entrepreneur and Janie Orlean funder Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance, absolutely terrific). Determined to turn adversity to advantage, the billionaire takes control of the US effort to ward off the danger that the comet poses. Reduced to a mere spectator, Randall is pushed into personal indiscretions.
Randall’s troubles represent an individual crisis of conscience, the comet heading towards Earth denotes climate change, and Kate’s enthusiastic idealism symbolises a very, very slim sliver of hope. The composite picture that Don’t Look Up conjures up is, of course, bleak.
DiCaprio and Lawrence are a delight to watch as they lead the charge with Blanchett and Streep providing the icing on the cake. It is a marvel that the actors and their director seem to be having so much fun in the act of painting a dark, disturbing portrait. Juxtaposing the sublime and the trivial, the cautionary and the tongue-in-cheek, the gleaming and the grey to drive home its point, Don’t Look Up is watchable all the way.