Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a doctoral student in astronomy, and her advisor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) make a surprising discovery of a comet, named after Dibiasky. But their joy turns quickly to fear when they realise its dimensions and map its trajectory. The comet, the size of Mount Everest, is headed straight towards earth. The possibility of Earth’s destruction—an extinction category event—propels these two mid-level scientists to seek help from the US President, NASA, the media and anyone who will listen.
When their data-driven findings don’t get the urgent response required from the administration, when none take them seriously and when a tech tycoon hijacks the mission for his own profit motives, Dibiasky becomes the panic-stricken truth-teller. Her vocal doomsday warnings get her into trouble while Mindy is swept away by the charm of a TV show host (Cate Blanchett), and his sudden celebrity status. But when the veneer of White House-ordained sense of importance wears off, Dr Mindy joins Dibiasky to get the world to start looking up and realising that the end is near.
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (Netflix) takes some of its cues from Tim Burton’s 1996 film Mars Attacks in its farcical take on modern day problems—the over reliance on technology, the power of social media, manipulations of the daily news cycle, the greed of big corporations, the nexus between politicians and big companies, political one-upmanship and competition between nations for finite resources. In between, McKay takes digs at former US President Donald Trump, at policies that are formed not for betterment of society but purely for profit. But the film’s main message is global warming and the climate crisis.
While DiCaprio and Lawrence put in all seriousness into their roles, it’s the supporting cast that pushes the comedy. Meryl Streep is the over-the-top President Orlean, whose commitment to the Oval Office is as sincere as her obsequious son Jason (Jonah Hill) serving as her chief of staff. He is the one with glib lines, the nonsensical ideas, a role Hill is ideally suited for. Blanchett and Mark Rylance submit to major prosthetics and make up transformation while Ariana Grande as Riley Bina has one comically bizarre song. Timothee Chalamet is wasted as Yule, Dibiasky’s skateboarding romantic interest. Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Scott Mescudi and Himesh Patel are among the cast. Ishaan Khattar makes a fleeting appearance in a montage of alarmist social media posts beseeching people to look up and be afraid.
Mostly shot indoors in Mindy’s lab, in the White House, NASA control centre, large stadia where rallies and rock concerts feed the paranoia of a divided population, the outside world is represented mostly with stock images such as cuddling hippos and cooing babies.
McKay’s mixed filmography, as producer, director and writer, includes the TV series Succession, The Big Short, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. With his background in improv comedy and Saturday Night Live, a film like Don’t Look Up is not surprising. Persist through the first hour to get to the more entertaining second hour.
It’s Dr Mindy who sums up the moral of the story, with doomsday fast approaching: “We really did have everything, didn’t we? We didn’t think about it.” Unfortunately, in attempting to make the message palatable to an American audience, the satire just doesn’t land firmly.