Some satires are so precise in their humor, they feel like a ninja catching a gnat with chopsticks. On the other hand, the jokes in Don’t Look Up are about as subtle as a slobbering ogre chasing frightened peasants with an unhinged barn door. Every gag in this film essentially pounds on the same theme: Humans are an ungainly horde of cretins, gleefully tweeting and TikToking our way into an inevitable oblivion. Writer-director Adam McKay and his all-star squad hammer this point into ground round over the course of an overlong 140 minutes. What we’re left with is a movie that could’ve been funnier, more powerful, or both. Ultimately, what makes Don’t Look Up sporadically funny is also the thing that keeps it from being great: It just doesn’t know when to stop rampaging.
We begin at some remote observatory. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Ph.D. candidate, who currently steers the satellite array to study deep space. During these maneuvers, she spots a brand new comet and immediately alerts her boss. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a look at the star charts and makes an alarming conclusion: In a little over six months, this object will smash directly into Earth. Roughly the size of Mt. Everest, the comet’s impact will annihilate all life on the planet.
Panicked, Kate and Dr. Mindy scramble to notify the higher authorities. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), NASA’s head of Planetary Defense, gets the duo a meeting at the White House. Unfortunately, they immediately get entangled in a thicket of bureaucratic incompetence: President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a narcissistic dilettante with the immaculate primping of a Fox News anchor. Her son Jason (Jonah Hill) serves as Chief of Staff, and interrupts meetings to announce when his latest dose of molly has kicked in. These upper class twits are thoroughly indifferent to Mindy’s jargon-heavy jeremiad. Orlean worries that this apocalyptic disaster is just the kind bummer that will come back to bite her in the midterms. It just won’t play well. With that, the horrified astronomers are shooed out of the Oval Office.
Thus rejected, Kate and Dr. Mindy decide share their revelation with the press. Oglethorpe books them on The Big Rip, a dipshit morning show that mainly concerns itself with pedantic celebrity gossip. Hosts Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry) trade plastic banter and keep fraudulent smiles frozen on their faces in an effort to “keep things light.” They respond to news of the comet like the cartoon characters they are: “Is it gonna hit my ex-wife’s house?” Jack asks.
Of course, even this world-ending disaster becomes a hot-button political issue. Americans quickly separate into two camps: Frightened believers, who beg for everyone to #lookup at the impending comet and find a solution to the crisis. On the other side, deniers believe that the whole thing is just another one of them snowflake scare tactics, probably meant to rake in more money for Greenpeace or some other crap. Orlean eventually decides to score a few approval points and try and deflect the comet, but will it be too little, too late?
The issue gets further clouded by the arrival of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a beatnik smartphone guru and “the third-richest man in the world.” Isherwell is what I imagine Steve Jobs would look like if he joined that Hale-Bopp space cult where everybody had bowl-cuts and purple smocks. He believes that the Dibiasky meteor is chocked with valuable minerals that could both feed the hungry and please the shareholders. Isherwell pleads with Orlean to break the comet into smaller crumbs, instead of nuking it wholesale. He’s a “platinum-level donor,” so she gives his suggestion extra weight.
That’s really all I want to give ya. Don’t Look Up veers wildly in several directions, kinda like that driving cat on early 90s Saturday Night Live. In that sense, this movie’s closest ancestor feels like Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork of satirical comedy. Strangelove deployed its iconic lunacy to mock the real-life ridiculousness of mutually-assured destruction as a nuclear deterrent. But even that madcap film feels downright restrained compared to this one. McKay and company heave jokes at the wall like gobs of pasta: Some of it sticks, but a lot of noodles plop to the ground, too. It’s as if the filmmakers are betting you’ll get a few laughs, if just out of the sheer law of averages.
And they’re not completely wrong. Don’t Look Up has just enough truth to provoke the occasional giggles. For all its broad humor, most of these chuckles come from the film’s throwaway moments. (Example: At the White House, a Pentagon chief charges the astronomers for bottles of water and chips, like it’s an airport Radisson.) Up is actually funnier in the margins than it is dead-center.
Within that middle area, the film actually borrows from Sidney Lumet’s Network, another titan of cinematic satire. Both DiCaprio and Lawrence get moments to scream into the TV cameras, echoing Peter Finch’s volcanic diatribe in that movie. The key difference is that Finch’s Howard Beale was fuming on behalf of a country wracked with war, Watergate, and the withering of Norman Rockwell’s Americana. Here, Kate and Dr. Mindy act as surrogates for the filmmakers, directly berating the audience for their inaction. In these moments, Don’t Look Up becomes uncomfortably preachy.
That’s not to say this movie’s underlying message isn’t worthy of such passion: McKay conceived this Strangelove/Deep Impact hybrid as an allegory for the impending doom of climate change. In his view, the end is much closer than most people realize, but most of humanity is too deliriously distracted to pay attention. When Dr. Mindy announces the End of Days, this moment immediately gets out-trended by a pop star (Ariana Grande) getting back with her wayward boyfriend. Sure, a comet is about to level the entire planet, but…do we hear wedding bells?!
Don’t Look Up is a difficult movie to rate. Yes, the subject matter is absolutely crucial. Do I think this satirical sermon will win any converts? Doubtful. The fact that our planet is in danger has been around for decades, and if the mounting physical evidence hasn’t already swayed non-believers, I can’t imagine that any Hollywood product ever will. Still, Up has just enough humor to keep it moving, and Streep, Blanchett, and Hill clearly have a ball playing their respective idiots. I want to recommend it, but with a caveat: This is a fascinating film that might frustrate you with everything it could have been.
138 min. R. Netflix.