Director Adam McKay, known for irreverent works like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys, has recently been honing his comedy skills down to making pointed social satires in films like The Big Short and Vice. McKay has now come out with his most ambitious satire yet, an apocalyptic mirror of our current society called DON’T LOOK UP. In the first couple minutes of the film, two astronomers — one a PhD student named Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and the other a professor at Michigan State (Leonardo DiCaprio) — find a 10 kilometer long comet from the Oort Cloud that is heading directly towards Earth. This could be an extinction level event, so the duo attempt to head directly to the Oval Office so action can be taken to save the human race. Of course, they start to realize that nobody takes themes seriously, starting a series of pointed political critiques that make for McKay’s most focused satire by leaps and bounds.
DON’T LOOK UP begins as a typical political criticism in the same tone in which McKay has excelled in his previous films. The very first scene in the White House with a bumbling U.S. President (Meryl Streep) and her cluelessly reckless son/Chief of Staff (a hilarious Jonah Hill) is a parody of modern political inaction. McKay mocks U.S. Presidents who often show apathy when something critical crosses their desks unless it politically benefits them. If someone could come to a President with the news that the world is about to end and they could care less, then what is the point in having this institution represent the public at all? DON’T LOOK UP asks this question, along with poking fun at the ridiculousness of the modern American political landscape, where everyone cares so much about their image that they neglect the issues that actually matter in the world. Seeing Streep play a direct parody of Trump if he handled a comet impacting Earth is vastly meaningful even with a new President in office.
The predominant metaphor that the incoming comet serves to represent is the climate crisis Earth is facing. Scientists have predicted the Earth will deteriorate quickly over the next hundred years with officials and societal leaders doing nothing. This interpretation is where the film thrives, especially when McKay delves into the human impact these events will have on innocent, well-meaning civilians. In this respect, the last act of DON’T LOOK UP succeeds far more than the rest, delivering a cautionary tale that will make most stop in their tracks and wonder what it is that we as a society hold dear. McKay’s main message seems to emphasize the connection we have with each other as human beings, and how we should reach out to and cherish the people we love. I don’t believe the film would have worked at all without this powerful message to bookend the satire, and it transforms DON’T LOOK UP from a long Saturday Night Live segment into a worthwhile movie experience with a message that will stick with viewers.
Much of the reason why these points land in addition to McKay’s interesting concept is the all-star cast that handles the material on-screen. Saying that DiCaprio and Lawrence deliver fantastic performances seems to be a given at this point, but their quality work in this film makes that sentiment worth reiterating. The comedic talent ends up coming from an improvisational Jonah Hill and an unexpectedly hilarious Timothée Chalamet, among many others. The score from Nicholas Britell also adds exponentially to the chaos, hilarity and dramatic heft of the film, delivering jazzy flourishes and hard-hitting emotional strings in the moments that matter. Couple this with some quality visual effects once the comet starts approaching Earth, and audiences get a movie that rises above most other surface-level Adam McKay comedies.
DON’T LOOK UP is by no means a masterpiece, for nuance and specificity have never been aspects that McKay has excelled at given his overt comedy roots. However, the emotional and political significance of this film ends up being more poignant than anything McKay has accomplished yet, making it an essential movie to close 2021. While the unreasonably large cast sometimes distracts more than aids the movie as a whole (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi are present for like five minutes), the message is strong enough to cut through the celebrity distractions and hit home some strong takedowns of modern-day political and social norms. DON’T LOOK UP does not claim to have all of the answers to these problems, but it points out some hilarious, yet troubling issues with the culture we take for granted and the figureheads we place in high regard.