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When Michigan family man and astronomy professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) first identifies the catastrophe that lies ahead, he spends the night checking and rechecking the calculations, and is quick to call the White House with the bad news the following day. Mindy’s urgency matches the speed of the Everest-sized Comet Dibiasky – named for its discoverer PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) – which is hurtling on a cataclysmic collision course with Earth.
This introduction to Don’t Look Up might sound like the set-up for a spectacular global disaster movie like Meteor (1979), Armageddon (1998) or the fake ‘popcorn’ blockbuster Total Devastation (included within the film itself by way of reflexive contrast). In fact, Adam McKay’s feature comes closer to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) or Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), an epic lampooning of a dumbed-down America incapable of responding to a crisis with wisdom or even timeliness.
Here the ‘famously late’ POTUS Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), with her drugged-up Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) and her campaigning hat (its motto of denial: ‘Don’t Look Up’), is an obvious if regendered Trump figure, while affectless corporate CEO and tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), with his dead eyes to the skies, is a clear composite of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for,” Dibiasky says of these recognisable power players.
In McKay’s satire, metaphors are made flesh. Explaining the astronomical data on television, Mindy is interviewed by a literal muppet. Co-opted as the sexed-up public face of bad science, Mindy’s seduction involves him literally getting into bed with the media, specifically, with TV anchor Brie Avantee (Cate Blanchett), who insists that he tell her “We’re all going to die” as part of his foreplay. “You’re with the grown-ups now,” Orlean informs Mindy, as she lights a cigarette in front of a “flammable” sign.
As this apocalyptic story gets chopped into a multiplicity of memes, reports, ads, online chats and uploads, the medium becomes the message, revealing how easily our own hunger for mindless entertainment, instant gratification and celebrity trivia (in a film rammed with celebrities) can divert our attention from the reality of our species’s imminent annihilation. Even that barrelling comet is merely palatable cinematic cover for the film’s true subject, the coming climate catastrophe. This is a broad, crass, scattergun comedy, but one that fairly reflects the age of distraction being so grimly targeted.
Originally published: 20 December 2021