Don’t Look Up Review: An Astronomical Misfire

Don’t Look Up Review: An Astronomical Misfire

Rating: 2/5

Satire is never easy. It’s always a precarious ledge for any filmmaker to wobble on with dexterity, while never losing the thread of their satirical point itself. Hypothetically, Don’t Look Up should have been a relatively breezy and effortless venture for Adam McKay. Surely, one of the primary minds behind the television titan, Succession, shouldn’t feel squeamish at the thought of some cerebral, razor-sharp satire. Much less, the filmmaker who helmed the ambitious political dramedy, Vice (2018), and surged to Oscar glory with the terrifically bleak, The Big Short (2015). 

Don’t Look Up, however, amasses one of the most glorious casts in recent memory, but seems to have doubled down on genuine humor, biting social commentary, and just about everything else that was needed to make it work. The latest Netflix comedy centers on two minor astronomers, Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky (the star-studded duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who initially come across a wondrous discovery: an unidentified comet hurtling across space. It’s a mildly triumphant moment for the pair of astronomers, that is until a series of dizzying, intricate equations reveal the comet’s true trajectory: it’s on a direct collision course with Earth. 

As the devastation of this planet-killing comet settles in, Randall and Kate now face the inevitable, and rather a grueling task of breaking the news to the world, in hopes of administrations and crucial world leaders lending them aid to avert an incoming Armageddon. Naturally, in a world as obtuse and fickle as our own, the apprehensive astronomers are dismissed on sight. The President, (a goofy and blatantly Trump-inspired Meryl Streep), attempts to dial down the threat of the comet in ridiculous fashion: “We sit tight and assess,” she firmly announces to an anxiety-riddled Kate and paranoid Randall. 

The frightful astronomers then sprint towards mainstream media to garner greater attention towards the comet. This lands them straight onto a popular segment led by talk-show hosts Brie and Jack (an ever-endearing pair of Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), who try to dampen and play down the comet’s imminent threat, to the behest of a now hysterical Kate and an increasingly unhinged Randall. Their pleas for global attention and outcry are soon dissolved as the media drops their case, hilariously citing the reason to be lackluster social media reach. From here on, Don’t Look Up dabbles with a plethora of contemporary concerns, ranging from ineffective political leaders, and the buffoonery of right-wing advocates to dissecting neoliberalism, superficial pop stars, and opportunist Hollywood A-Listers.

The film is unquestionably ambitious in approach, but soon brims with a surplus of narrative threads, each one twisting into the other in confounding and often agonizing clutter. One could tell that the notion of a climate change crusade spearheaded by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence sent a rush down McKay’s spine; even more so in a film with Meryl Streep as the US President, a jumpy, nepotistic Jonah Hill as her son, and Chief of Staff, Mark Rylance as an obscenely wealthy tech CEO with dashes of Zuckerberg and Jobs, all sprinkled with throwaway appearances from Kid Cudi, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry and yes, even Timothée Chalamet. With a cast that glimmers and teems with such astounding talent, McKay’s writing regrettably shatters every scrap of promise the film ever held, never boasting even a modicum of the riveting wit and hilarity of his earlier works.

Don’t Look Up Review: An Astronomical Misfire

Meryl Streep as President in ‘Don’t Look Up (Credits: Netflix)

In all honesty, it’s a crying shame to assemble an unfathomable cast such as this, only to squander their abilities on a plodding mess of a film. The key obstruction in its path, is that it ultimately treads no new ground. Rather than profound observations of culture, Don’t Look Up is simply an excruciating revision exercise on mechanisms of the world we’re already well aware of. Yes, we know the system is corrupt, politicians are double-dealing crooks, celebrities are painfully egocentric and phony, and media outlets have a relentless fixation with their social media reach. But none of these are groundbreaking themes, and Don’t Look Up’s critical failure is that it treats these subjects as such. 

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Drifting from one cultural phenomenon to the next, McKay mentally ticks off significant pop-culture events from the preceding years, but fails to make them what they should have been all along: compelling plot points. The result is a tedious satire which, beyond the occasional flourishes of humor, hardly ever warrants a viewing. It’s also worth mentioning how much of a tonally disastrous and confused muddle Don’t Look Up truly is; while initially promising wisps of a whip-smart comedy, the film devolves into even more ambiguous territory, as McKay opts for a bleaker tone that never really meshes well with the humor he establishes. 

It’s baffling for a film to portray such outlandish caricatures for characters, coupled with some lifeless VFX, and expect you to take its focal message with a semblance of seriousness. Borrowing from much finer films in the same vein, Don’t Look Up largely resembles Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece on despair: Melancholia (2011). Now, Von Trier’s film is a cheerless, grim depiction of a woman undergoing a severe depressive episode at her very own wedding, all while an entire planet is on an imminent collision course with Earth. McKay’s film isn’t necessarily meant to be as forlorn as Von Trier’s, but when Don’t Look Up tries extracting genuine emotion out of us about the end of the world, it never really works. In a film with scattershot humor, grossly miscast roles, and a script that furiously beats around the bush, Don’t Look Up never succeeds in this regard, or any regard for that matter. 

Don’t Look Up Review: An Astronomical Misfire

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up (Credits: Netflix)

It’s also immeasurably disappointing how McKay bungles up such a colossal cast. DiCaprio is reliably excellent, and so is his pairing with a hilariously energetic Lawrence, who finally returns to the silver screen after a 3-year hiatus. But Don’t Look Up stretches these seasoned performers to a breaking point with the sheer idiocy of its screenplay. Rob Morgan is a terrifically sincere performer, Chalamet is an enlivening energy, Blanchett is a dispensable but amusing addition and even Streep brings out the big guns. But sadly, it’s all in service of a film that diminishes the overwhelming talent of its ensemble. Grande and Kid Cudi fill the screen, but are hardly ever a memorable presence. Ron Perlman is shamefully wasted, as are Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Himesh Patel, and countless other dazzling stars who are ultimately reduced to forgettable cameos.

Even the tremendously gifted composer Nicholas Britell, of the Succession fame, delivers a soundtrack which is predictably lost under the crushing weight of McKay’s self-indulgent and often atrociously edited film. This is no exaggeration: Don’t Look Up employs perhaps some of the worst editing ever put to film, brimming with jarring jump cuts, the most hilariously bizarre stock footage interspersed with random moments in the film, all while zipping past nearly a dozen different angles in one scene. Even if there is some humor to be had and an ounce of credibility sprinkled in some scenes, Don’t Look Up crushes it all with an ending so absurdly stupid, it’s almost a travesty how it ever left the editing floor or how any of these A-listers ever agreed to something this laughably bad.

For all its noble intentions of climate change and reflections on culture, the film never comes close to the smart, humorous, and timely message it so desperately yearns to deliver. I won’t spoil whether the comet ever makes impact, since the film derives most of its watchable quality from this lingering question. But a comet or not, it’s ultimately Don’t Look Up that comes crashing and burning down. 

Author Biographical Note: The author is currently pursuing a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Jai Hind College, Mumbai. He is currently working for Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue in the capacity of an intern. 

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