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Don’t Look Up review: Finding the funny in the end of the world

Given everything going on in the world right now, it’s no surprise that stories about the end of civilization as we know it have become increasingly popular. But even in a crowded field, Netflix film Don’t Look Up might offer the most accurate depiction so far of what the apocalypse might look like.

What might be surprising, however, is how funny the end of the world can be.

Written and directed by Academy Award winner Adam McKay (The Big ShortVice), Don’t Look Up casts Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers — professor and student, respectively — who discover a massive asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. Their efforts to warn humanity of this extinction-level event end up stalled by a parade of polling-obsessed politicians, traffic-hungry news outlets, greedy corporations, and a populace willing to ignore science and their own eyes in support of their ideological leaders.

Basically, it’s a recipe for disaster made entirely of all-too-familiar ingredients.

It’s also a brilliantly scripted, wonderfully acted, and depressingly realistic satire of the environment America currently finds itself in, and the threat it poses not just to the country, but to the future of humanity.

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from Don't Look Up.

Strength in numbers

Joining DiCaprio and Lawrence in the film’s cast is an all-star ensemble that includes three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) as Republican U.S. President Janie Orlean, whose political ambition outweighs her common sense, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound) as veteran scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) portrays tech oligarch Peter Isherwell (an amalgam of Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, among others of that ilk), while Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Tyler Perry (Diary of a Mad Black Woman) play a pair of eternally chipper, Good Morning America-style daytime news program hosts.

The supporting cast is filled out with Jonah Hill as President Orlean’s smarmy son and chief of staff, along with relatively brief roles for Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Himesh Patel, Michael Chiklis, and Chris Evans, among other familiar faces (and voices).

It’s a crowded cast, certainly, but the film does a nice job of keeping its focus on the rollercoaster journey of Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and Ph.D. student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), who find themselves shocked at every turn by apathetic responses to what could very well be the most important news in humanity’s history. The dramatically different ways each character handles those responses — Mindy with submissive, work-from-within optimism, and Dibiasky with burn-it-all down outrage — form the crux of the story’s narrative, as they each grapple with the most effective ways to deliver the mother of all bad news to a world that can’t be bothered with it.

Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from Don't Look Up.

Message and medium

Anyone familiar with McKay’s more recent work will feel right at home with the unconventional organization of Don’t Look Up.

When the film presents some particularly tricky scientific concepts or plot points that seem too unbelievable to be true, it will occasionally pause to provide an on-screen graphic or informal explanation with some additional context or confirmation. The technique isn’t used as often as it was in McKay’s chronicle of the 2007 financial crisis, The Big Short, but when it does pop up (sometimes literally), it feels better integrated into the story in Don’t Look Up than it did when deployed in prior films.

That’s important, because Don’t Look Up is a film is filled with concepts and scenarios that benefit from a little extra attention.

Don't Look Up (2021)
Don't Look Up
49 %
Genre Drama, Comedy, Science Fiction
Stars Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep
Directed by Adam McKay

Don’t Look Up doesn’t shy away from introducing both the complicated concepts that provide scientists with the ability to gather data and make verifiable predictions, and the complicated obstacles they face in translating what they find to the public and entities outside the scientific community. (And it has science consultant and astronomer Dr. Amy Mainzer to thank for ensuring both elements’ authenticity.) Even so, the film has a surprisingly accessible and universal quality to its story and message. The planet’s impending collision with an asteroid could be exchanged for a disaster tied to climate change, a pandemic, or other threats to our species’ survival, and the fundamental themes — as well as most plot points — wouldn’t need to change much (if at all).

McKay’s script and direction don’t do all the heavy lifting in that respect, though. Mindy and Dibiasky are sympathetic characters despite presenting two approaches to a problem that couldn’t be more different. through DiCaprio and Lawrence’s performances, their frustrations with an apathetic populace become our frustrations (and if they’re not, they should be), and much of the movie’s comedy comes from the ridiculous situations they find themselves in as a result of that frustration — situations with just enough basis in reality to be depressingly plausible.

It’s good satire done well, and McKay is developing a reliable knack for it.

The cast of Don't Look Up pictured in the film's Oval Office.

Sounding the alarm

Despite everything working in its favor, McKay’s filmmaking style isn’t going to win over everyone — and the overt “believe the science or die” theme of Don’t Look Up probably won’t do it any favors in that respect either. That’s unfortunate, though, because the film’s message is an important one, and anyone annoyed with its pro-science themes are probably the people most in need of hearing that message.

At a time when truth and science are under constant attack, Don’t Look Up exists in the overlap between social commentary and silly escapism, an area of storytelling that’s surprisingly broad, but difficult to navigate well. That it successfully disguises that commentary within sci-fi escapism is a testament to the film’s clever script and great performances from its talented cast.

Don’t Look Up probably won’t save the world on its own, but what it does do is deliver a vital message in a way that stands the best chance of making people receptive to it: By wrapping it in laughter.

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is available in theaters now and will premiere on December 24 on Netflix.

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