“Don’t Look Up” is a film that plays things safe but thinks it is doing something brave. The film, co-written and directed by Adam McKay (“The Big Short”), is an allegory for climate change, providing audiences with the ambivalent reactions of the media and government leaders to the impending doom of the planet presented by a comet heading towards the earth. In this story, the comet is discovered by Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”), who continually try and fail to get people to realize the apocalypse is coming.
The film delivers its story and overall message with a sense of self-importance that is unwarranted. Yes, it is important to sound the alarms and take action against the developing climate disaster, but anyone who is aware of the effects of climate change is likely already trying to do something about it. Not only that, but the majority of the people that will see this movie are already in that camp, meaning McKay and co-writer David Sirota (a journalist and former Bernie Sanders campaign advisor) spend two hours preaching to an echo chamber that already believes in the message.
By the time Randall Mindy gives his Howard Beale-esque “I’m mad as hell” rant on live television towards the end of the film, he’s essentially just explicitly re-stating what the message of the film is to the few members of the audience that didn’t understand what took place in the previous two hours. The lack of subtle commentary isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it can be quite provocative and effective at times — see the ending of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” However, “Don’t Look Up”’s ideas are not elusive, bold or provocative in the slightest.
Because the film’s climate change message has no weight behind it (given the audience’s preexisting understanding of its drastic effects), it becomes nothing more than a perfectly adequate drama. It rarely feels boring, seeming more focused than the rest of McKay’s filmography. His previous two films, “The Big Short” and “Vice,” were very messy in their execution (for good and bad). Both tried to go for a hybrid drama-sketch comedy tone that only kind of works in “The Big Short” and doesn’t work at all in “Vice.” McKay has ditched that for the most part and “Don’t Look Up” then works as a fairly straightforward drama with some heightened, cartoonish characters.
Docu-drama handheld cinematography and frantic editing, McKay’s trademark, are still here but feel more toned down than usual. Neither works particularly well (apart from the wild cutting taking place when Dr. Mindy is having anxiety attacks) and when the film’s cinematography doesn’t look downright ugly, it just looks fairly bland. It makes sense that this film was released on Netflix because it isn’t particularly cinematic; it looks like an episode of “Succession” with a bigger budget.
“Don’t Look Up” so desperately wants to be this generation’s “Dr. Strangelove,” that it not only tries to capture its tone but also references similar key details like its use of a World War II-era love song as a sign of the apocalypse.
I appreciate what McKay tries to do in his films because his ideas in terms of content and form are quite unique compared to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. They don’t always work — “Vice” really struggles and it took me three viewings to finally come around on “The Big Short” — but the attempts are never complete failures. His projects, including this one, always have potential, but he never finds the right balance in his execution, which leads to either wildly messy projects or an uninteresting final product. “Don’t Look Up” is unfortunately the latter.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.