Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Don't Look Up (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Plugging away at the list of 601 all-time Best Picture nominees, I'm now ten away from the halfway point, having just watched Don't Look Up, the sociopolitical satire from Adam McKay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.  The two leads play a pair of Michigan State astronomers who discover a comet somewhere between five and ten kilometers wide, which they've calculated will collide with Earth in just over six months, causing an extinction-level event.  When they present this information to the vapid, unqualified US President (Meryl Streep), her response is predictably dismissive and she cares more about how this will affect her polling numbers than the near-certainty that the world is going to be destroyed.  And even after the government's scientists confirm the data, the POTUS is nonchalant about formulating a plan to divert the comet, aborting the mission after an obscenely wealthy industrialist (a creepily soft-spoken Mark Rylance) informs her the comet contains ultra-rare minerals that can be mined for a massive US profit.  The story plays out as something in between a satire and a farce, I guess?
This film was very divisive when it was released, its obvious commentary on climate change denial, Trumpism, and anti-vaxxer rhetoric criticized as too on-the-nose, even by some on the left (the right of course slammed it unanimously for not being *their* kind of propaganda).  Its message is indeed overt: modern society has become so vacuous and consumed by what's convenient, popular and instantly gratifying, that if a world-threatening situation like this arose we'd be so incapable of unity or even intelligent debate it would mean the end of civilization.  I mean, the film's not wrong, look at what a clusterfuck the pandemic turned into; we couldn't agree on basic scientific data and everyone on social media suddenly became a "research expert."  The film's title refers to a political slogan put out by the President when the comet actually becomes visible to everyone on Earth - #DontLookUp.  "Ignore the problem and it will go away."  Sounds familiar....

Despite its heart being in the right place, I think the reason the film didn't totally work for me as a comedy/satire is that it's barely an exaggeration.  Yes the commentary is hamfisted, but it's also, let's be frank, pretty accurate if you've been paying attention the last several years.  If the film is meant to be funny (and it is), it instead inspires frustration at society's complete inability to act in its own best interests and fix the issues that endanger us all.  There are some laughs here and there but they're overwhelmed by the moments of "Jesus we're fucked as a species."  And therefore the film doesn't quite land as either a comedy or as an earnest apocalyptic parable.  Adam McKay's last two films, The Big Short and Vice, found just the right balance of humor and outrage - both of those films informed in a very engaging and entertaining way - but this one felt less like Dr. Strangelove and more like Mars Attacks!  And it's too bad; right now we could use a film as deftly biting as Strangelove.

I think if Don't Look Up were handled either more seriously or more outrageously it would've worked better.  Either give the audience a legit kick in its complacent ass or go for broke and make the film Anchorman-level ridiculous.  Don't Look Up can't seem to decide which one it wants to be, and therefore it's a near-miss.

I give the film **1/2 out of ****.

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