DISASTER movie or movie disaster? Adam McKay’s dark sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up certainly got a tough ride from the critics.
Hollywood A-listers don’t come with any better environmental credentials that Leonardo DiCaprio. (It’s more than 20 years since he launched a foundation dedicated to ensuring the future health and well-being of Earth’s inhabitants.)
But even with Leo leading an all-star line-up that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Ariana Grande, the disturbing climate change allegory centred around a massive comet about to destroy human civilisation was initially written off by many reviewers as laboured slapstick or self-reverential twaddle.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s hard to create great satire in an age when real life has already exposed us to a distorted dystopia peopled by political clowns and charlatans who behave like comic-book villains.
Let’s face it, after four years of a Trump presidency, what new is there to say about incompetence or disingenuity by those in high office?
As the narcissistic President Orlean, Meryl Streep does her best to give POTUS a fresh dynamic, aided and abetted by Jonah Hill as her doting, sociopathic son and chief of staff.
Predictably, the pair meet news of the looming disaster with distracted indifference, more concerned about polling numbers in the upcoming primaries than in averting imminent extermination.
But for anyone weaned on The Thick Of It and In The Loop, jokes about self-serving politicians feel too depressingly real nowadays to make us laugh quite so heartily about their foibles as we once did.
The same is true of McKay’s other targets. From creepy billionaire tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to the vacuous banter-driven hosts of fictional breakfast show The Daily Rip, his larger-than-life caricatures are scarily and depressingly recognisable.
The underlying theme, of course, is that when DiCaprio and Lawrence – as nervous, nerdy Michigan astronomer Dr Randall Mindy and his smart, punkish grad student Kate Dibiasky (who gets ALL the best lines) – try to warn humanity about the looming apocalypse, no one will take their claims seriously.
Writer, director and producer Mackay wants us to share his horror that we live in a society which persistently sidelines the reality of the climate crisis, using savage humour as his principal weapon.
But if some critics found his vision unbearably smug, crass or cynical, that didn’t stop TV audiences making it the third most-watched Netflix film in the company’s history, prompting many commentators to take a fresh look at his offering.
They found scientists reacting positively to the movie, finding it only too easy to relate to Mindy and Dibiasky’s mounting incredulity at society’s terrifying non-response to the impending destruction.
The denialism also struck a chord with environmental activists, who saw their own struggles reflected in the pair’s growing despair that society is more interested in a pop star’s failed relationship than the future of the planet.
The dark humour takes no prisoners, though. Capitalist greed, political expediency and media idiocracy are all in the firing line, along with the polarising nature of social media in a clickbait-driven society anaesthetised into apathy and indifference.
This is a world of short attention spans, cruel memes and knee-jerk hashtags which feels very 2022, in which the frustrated audience wants someone to listen to Mindy’s desperate scream that “We’re all going to die”.
So how come some critics found it trite and self-satisfied, trivialising the climate crisis “from a position of lofty superiority” rather than providing searing socio-political insights, while others felt it offered a “one-of-a-kind experience”?
Derivative, meandering, condescending, unfunny and forgettable, or astute, caustic, clever and fast-paced?
Predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between. Yes, it’s brash, absurd, ferocious and infuriating, but there’s some great acting, enormous enthusiasm and some great one-liners, especially from Dibiasky: “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying. And unsettling.”
It’s been slated as a cosmic disaster, a primal scream, an A-list bomb of a movie. Yet a dozen prominent publications have also run contrary think pieces exploring just why the critics gave McKay such a rough ride.
Could the jaded hacks so eager to detect the whiff of condescension in McKay’s boisterous attack actually be in danger of straying into the line of fire themselves? As environmental activist George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian: “No wonder journalists have slated it…it’s about them.”
Perhaps at the end of the day the precise artistic merits of McKay’s film don’t matter quite as much as the critics would have us believe.
He’s got us talking, arguing and debating about the elephant in the room, climate change. And that surely can’t be such a bad thing.
Don’t Look Up was released on Netflix in December 2021.