At well over two hours running time, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (streaming on Netflix) isn’t exactly a bagatelle, but it mostly retains its satiric lightness and goes by quickly. A holiday film about the end of the world should be fun, andDon’t Look Up is at its best when it’s quirky and distracted from its larger message of rousing a world obsessed with self and stuff into action against climate change, allegorized here by a Mt. Everest-sized comet hurtling towards the earth.
McKay got his start as a writer for Saturday Night Live, and his latest cinematic venture is most enjoyable when it stages sketches of improvisational spontaneity in which the characters goof, gabble, and gaze at their navels. The outraged graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) who discovers the killer meteor continually tries to get to the bottom of a bigger conundrum: why an air force general would bilk her for a few dollars for snacks and bottled water at the White House when, as she later finds out, there free for all staff and visitors. Meryl Streep’s whacky and craven rightwing president explains to the astronomers on her commitment to smoke cigarettes whenever she wants to. In the last moments of earthly existence, Leonardo di Caprio’s good-hearted but bumbling astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (sounds awfully like Fauci) and his family—along with his grad student Dibiasky and her skateboarder boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet) gather for a last supper, its elements foraged from the plundered shelves of a nearby supermarket. As the table shakes from the shockwaves of the impact, these Disciples of Truth and Science argue the merits of store-bought macaroni and cheese. Earlier, the hedonistic, narcissistic, so-artificial- hat-she’s-more-alien-than-human host of a daytime news and talk show (Cate Blanchett) seduces Dr. Mindy; as he rips off her power suit, she demands that he keep telling her “we’re all going to die.” It takes apocalyptic sex to turn on this debauched droid.
As the U.S. President, smartly cast against type and gender, Streep is whimsical and random, a combination that captures the ineptitude of Trump, though even an actor of her skills will never be able to portray the idiocy and ugliness of that man. Her son and chief-of-staff (Jonah Hill) is chaotically childish and idiotically funny.
When the good characters do bad things the humor crackles, especially: when the scientific saviors get seduced by pop culture and celebrity and turn to sedatives to get through their on-screen and existential ordeals.
When the preaching starts the entertainment stops. Over the macaroni Dr. Mindy gets elegiac and, a tear in his eye, mourns that “We had it all.” This sentiment is given visual reinforcement throughout the film, but especially at the crux, with shots of the rich tapestry of life: baby hippos nurtured by mama hippos; fabulously colored insects; the bounty of nature unspoiled. Real-life climate warrior DiCaprio’s character eventually rejects the enticements of celebrity and on live television screams for the world to wake-up. It’s not funny and not effective: eventually he gives up on spreading the Word and heads home to Michigan.
The looming antecedent for the story and many of its characters is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. That auteur’s meticulous control contrasts in every way with McKay’s looser approach. The clinical earnestness of Dr. Strangelove allowed the madness of mutually assured destruction to hit its target with hilarious, chilling force. The presidents in both films are hapless, the one well-meaning (Peter Sellars in one of his three roles in Kubrick’s film), the other just plain mean.
The music that accompanies the rogue B-52 in Dr. Strangelove as it flies over the Siberian tundra flies fuels the crazed charge drive towards Armageddon is “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”: a lone snare drum calls the troops; heroic trumpets line up for duty one by one; then the unseen soundtrack soldiers fall in, humming the melody. The result both mocks the madness and makes it real.
The commander of the rogue bomber, Slim Pickens, has his marching orders and he will carry them out. Pickens delivers his lines in deadpan, down-home southern accent (the actor was a native Californian); he plays the insanity straight until the last moment when he rides down the bomb as if it were bucking bull, waving his cowboy hat as he goes. The balletic montage of mushroom clouds follows with Vera Lynn singing her 1939 hit “We’ll Meet Again.”
Whereas the cabinet and joint chiefs of staff in Dr. Strangelove were headed down into mineshafts at the end, the elites of Don’t Look Up! escape earth in the space ship of ersatz Elon Musk billionaire Peter Isherwelll (an on-the-spectrum monomanic brilliantly played by a stuttering Mark Rylance) to wake up from the cryogenic journey of 22,740 on a sun-streaked planet, lush and apparently welcoming. These divergent itineraries sum up the differences between the films: dark comedy versus light entertainment.
The casual charms of Don’t Look Up! are abetted by the soundtrack from Nicholas Britell (who also did the music for McKay’s The Big Short). The resourceful Britell provides television jingles and easy lounge cues that move us from one locale to the next.
McKay updates the final mushroom clouds of Dr. Strangelove to meteor mayhem, and Vera Lynn’s seductive reverie is replaced by a paean to missed chances from American indie band Bon Iver. The lyrics of this closing number (authored by Britell, Ariana Granda, and three others) are kooky and random like the best bits of the movie, but the music is full of yearning and regret.
The film’s ranks are filled out with Hollywood liberals and many will happily watch them bash at the low-hanging pinata that is American political dysfunction and ignorance. Only Ariana Grande is given the delicious task of dismantling herself. She plays a vacuous pop star called Riley Bina who stages her private life in public, and who is vicious to Dr. Mindy in the Green Room of the news-and-talk show that vaults him to fame and infidelity.
The Look Up! movement gathers momentum even while the death star hurtles towards earth, and the mega-pop is called to the cause. Clad in the most exquisite white dress, her torso chastely gathered in her own private snow flurry, Grande sings the anti-title number, Look Up! at an awareness and fundraising concert. Gone is comet as metaphor. Science deniers and rising temperatures are this ice queen’s enemies:
Look up, what he’s really trying to say
Is get your head out of your ass
Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists
We really fucked it up, fucked it up this time
It’s so close, I can feel the heat big time
And you can act like everything is alright
But this is probably happening in real time
Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes
To get you through the mess we made
‘Cause tomorrow may never come
The descending bass line that opens the song is downcast, fatalistic, prayerful. Above this gloom, Grande’s voice is pure, crystalline, cold and glorious. Are we to believe that this comet-fighting megastar really gives a damn? No, Grande’s spectacular anthem of truth and light is the darkest, funniest passage in the whole movie. Its grandiloquence and glitter assure us that it’s all entertainment in the end.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)