Director/Screenplay – Adam McKay, Story – Adam McKay & David Sirota, Producers – Adam McKay & Kevin Messick, Photography – Linus Sandgren, Music – Nicholas Britell, Visual Effects Supervisor – Raymond Gieringer, Visual Effects – Framestore (Supervisor – Carlos Monzon), Instinctual (Supervisor – Alan Latteri), Lola | VFX & Scanline VFX (Supervisor – Dann Tarmy), Special Effects Supervisor – Devin Maggio, Production Design – Clayton Hartley. Production Company – Hyperobject Industries.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Dibiasky), Meryl Streep (President Orlean), Cate Blanchett (Brie Evantree), Rob Morgan (Dr Teddy Oglethorpe), Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean), Mark Rylance (Peter Isherwell), Tyler Perry (Jack Bremmer), Timothee Chalamet (Yule), Himesh Patel (Philip Kaj), Melanie Lynskey (June Mindy), Ron Perlman (Benedict Drask), Ariana Grande (Riley Bina), Scott Mescudi (D.J. Chello), Paul Guilfoyle (General Themes), Hetienne Park (Dr Calder), Robert Hurst Radochia (Evan Mindy), Conor Sweeney (Marshall Mindy), Michael Chiklis (Dan Pawketty), Robert Joy (Congressman Tenant)
Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral candidate in astronomy at Michigan State, is scanning the stars when she picks up an object. This is confirmed by her professor Dr Randall Mindy to be a comet. The mathematics show that it is on a collision course for a direct strike with the Earth in six months. They are taken to The White House and a meeting with President Orlean who immediately tries to minimise the 100% probability and then says they will sit on the information. Mindy and Kate decide the only option is a media blitz but their appearance on tv ends up with Kate being ridiculed as crazy in memes after an outburst on air. After midterm elections, The President reconsiders and appoints Mindy as her adviser. A shuttle mission is launched but cancelled at the last minute by tech billionaire Peter Isherwell who sees the comet as holding a valuable supply of rare earth minerals and comes up with a plan to split it up and crash the parts into the ocean. Despite seeing no less opportunity for disaster in such an untested plan, Mindy is required to give support to it.
Don’t Look Up comes from director/writer Adam McKay. McKay had started out working on Saturday Night Live (1975- ) before having a breakout hit with the Will Ferrell film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). McKay continued in the mainstream comedy vein for several years with other Will Ferrell vehicles such as Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2005), Step Brothers (2008), The Other Guys (2010) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013). From the latter half of the 2010s, McKay has moved to making more serious and ardently political works like The Big Short (2015) about the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Vice (2018), a devastating biopic about former Vice President Dick Cheney. He has also worked on the script for Ant-Man (2015) and produced a great many other works including Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), the cannibalism film Fresh (2022) and other politically vocal/satiric works like The Campaign (2012), The Dictator (2012), The Menu (2022) and tv works like QAnon: Into the Storm (2021) and one’s favourite show of the moment Succession (2018- ).
There have been a reasonable number of films about asteroids, meteors and comets on a collision course with Earth. See the likes of A Fire in the Sky (tv movie, 1978), Meteor (1979), Asteroid (tv mini-series, 1997), Doomsday Rock (tv movie, 1997), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Judgment Day (1999), Deadly Skies (2006), Impact (tv mini-series, 2008), Meteor (tv mini-series, 2009), Meteor Apocalypse (2010), Meteor Storm (2010), Asteroid vs Earth (2014), Impact Earth (2015), Meteor Assault (2015) and most recently the big-budget spectacle film Greenland (2020). All of these are Disaster Movies.
Don’t Look Up nominally falls into being a disaster movie, although it lacks a disaster movie’s focus on the scenes of mass destruction interspersed with assorted melodramas as people are caught up in the midst as they try to make it to safety. There are some effects sequences, although none of these are of the sort designed to wow you with seeing things being blown up. In regard to the human melodramas, at most we get a couple of minor subplots about Leonardo DiCaprio abandoning wife Melanie Lynskey to have an affair with news anchor Cate Blanchett, while Jennifer Lawrence hooks up with skateboarder Timothee Chalamet. Mostly though, Don’t Look Up is a satire on the political and media reactions to an oncoming disaster. It is, if you like, an intellectual disaster movie.
Adam McKay’s films of the 2010s have never held back on getting political. This is immediately evident when the film in quick course gets Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence to The White House to deliver news of the end of the world – and then has them forced to sit and wait through a birthday party and have to reschedule for the next day. And when they do facing Meryl Streep’s President immediately trying to rewrite “a 100% certainty” as 70 percent, Jonah Hill’s Secretary of State deriding Leonard DiCaprio’s hyperventilating panic – “Why’s he breathing funny?” – and Streep’s decision regarding the crisis “we’ll sit on it.”
The attempt to present the message via media fares no better where the tv presentation is overrun by the inane chatter of hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry; where news of the end of the world is upstaged by the celebrity breakup of Ariana Grande and boyfriend Scott Mescudi’s coming on air to propose to her, and shares equal time with a scandal about a Supreme Court appointee’s chequered past; where the newspaper company ditches the article because Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence make zero traction with the demographic audiences; and Jennifer’s outburst is immediately the subject of ridicule in memes, while her ex Himesh Patel publishes tabloid articles about dating the crazy chick and later a book entitled ‘I Slept With The Devil.’
The film becomes even more devastating with the introduction of Mark Rylance who seems conceived as an amalgam of tech billionaires – with an uncanny ability to analyse people’s entire lives and predict their deaths via phone apps or program soothing videos depending on someone’s mood. Not to mention when his space mission launches into orbit, it uncannily resembles the phallic rocket launched by Jeff Bezos. The scenes where the decision is made to abort the space shuttle mission because the comet is a source of rare earth minerals and then Leonardo is required to sell the plan all amid background commentary about South American countries being offered compensation to be hit by tsunamis and Jennifer demonised by her parents for failing to support American jobs becomes hilariously black.
McKay makes the point he is satirising both sides of the US political spectrum. Although the latter scenes where Meryl Streep mounts a re-election campaign based around ‘Don’t Look Up’ – which immediately draws associations to the nursery rhyme character of Chicken Little – is uncannily on the nose, particularly in its similarities to Donald Trump’s blatant campaign of misinformation and sewing distrust in science during the Covid pandemic. The film is filled with small background details like shovels suddenly going up to $500 in price and a blockbuster movie made about the disaster. My sides were splitting with some of Jonah Hill’s pieces of dialogue about giving prayers for material possessions and speeches about their being three types of American people. About the only thing we don’t get is the equivalent of the anti-maskers refusing to accept the comet as a betrayal of their fundamental right to believe what they want, although Michael Chiklis does briefly turn up as an Alex Jones-like video blogger.
Less so than a disaster movie, Don’t Look Up is a devastating Satire on modern society, especially on the lumbering behemoth of US politics and its inept response in the face of disaster, as well as the vapidity of modern media and especially social media. The scene where Leonardo DiCaprio erupts against the inadequacy of humanity’s response in the face of overwhelming disaster feels like an unrehearsed venting of anger against the US government’s response to Covid, while you could just as equally substitute environmental issues (of which DiCaprio has been a noted advocate).
The film brings together a phenomenal cast. Everybody right across the board gives great performances – from Leonard DiCaprio looking uncharacteristically dull and middle-aged and a sharp-tongued Jennifer Lawrence, from Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett respectively eating up the screen whenever they around to a very creepy Mark Rylance and Melanie Lynskey as Leonardo’s long-suffering wife. The only exception might be the irritating drippy Timothee Chalamet who feels like he is in the wrong film. The dialogue they get is razor-sharp and the barbed humour that runs throughout (and keeps going as the end credits run and during a post-credits scene) is bitingly hilarious.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2021 list. Winner for Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence( and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) at this site’s Best of 2021 Awards).