Don't Look Up - this marmite film is based on truly possible events
4 out of 5
The poster says it all really. Don't Look Up is a well-written dark satire starring just about every Hollywood A-List actor and is not just based on a true story, but is based on a possible story grounded in today's politics. It's a film that deeply divides audiences. Some claim it as brilliant while others say it is two and a half hours of their lives that they will never get back.
Let's talk story first. Male Scientist and Female Scientist discover a comet will hit Earth in six months and wipe out all life. They contact the relevant authorities who are Black Scientist and Asian Scientist. They all go to meet the President of the United States (who, despite being a woman, is Donald Trump). The President says scientists are always doomsaying, if people get too panicked she’ll lose the midterm election, and she’ll get around to dealing with the planet-killing comet later.
Feeling rejected and not knowing what to do, Male Scientist and Female Scientist finagle their way onto a big TV show. But all the subsequent media coverage is about how sexy the Male Scientist is and how shrill the Female Scientist sounds. Still in desperation, they go to the New York Times and get an article about the comet. In response, the President has Asian Scientist (who is head of NASA) announce there’s nothing to worry about, and the Times drops their story and accuses the scientists of making them look bad.
Then the President is caught in a scandal; suddenly distracting the public seems like a good idea. She pivots, endorses the comet’s existence, fires Asian Scientist as her “fall guy”, and announces an extravagant and PR-filled comet deflection mission. All the Scientists get behind her and calculate “an 81% chance of success”. The mission launches to great fanfare.
Now we are introduced to Tech CEO, the “third richest man on Earth” and the President’s biggest donor. Tech CEO says the comet’s full of the rare earth elements he needs to make cell phones and demands the President call off the comet deflection mission. He wants to use his own unproven technology to surgically disassemble and retrieve the comet. Some “Nobel Prize winning scientists” who work for him agree it’ll go great. Rather than offend a campaign donor, the President cancels the comet deflection mission.
The Scientists discuss this among themselves and decide that Tech CEO’s plan won’t work. Male Scientist decides to work within the system and try to change things from the inside, but this process gradually corrupts him. In order to keep his job and access, he stars in TV commercials where he reassures everyone that Tech CEO’s plan is great and they should feel safe. Female Scientist becomes an anti-comet-retrieval crusader. Her words cause riots, and the government responds by destroying her platform and credibility. She drops out of grad school and ends up in a two-bit town, bagging groceries.
The comet becomes visible in the night sky. The President hits on a new slogan, “Don’t Look Up!”, which pacifies her supporters and quells resistance. Conspiracy theorists write deranged blog posts saying there is no comet, and it’s all a Marxist plot. Hollywood celebrities say dumb things about how we “need to consider both sides” and “not let the comet divide us”.
Tech CEO tries his comet disassembly plan, but it fails, leaving Earth officially doomed. Male Scientist has a redemption arc, admits that trying to work within the system was wrong, and reconciles with various people he needs reconciling with. Everyone has a touching moment of togetherness before the comet strikes and kills them all - except the elites, who escaped on a starship designed by Tech CEO! After many years, they reach another habitable planet, but get eaten by alien dinosaurs immediately after landing.
Director Adam Mckay, who is best known for satirical dramas based on true events (The Big Short, Vice), strikes a similar tone but with a fictional circumstance. He taps the same comedic vein as his past work but paints a picture that feels depressingly accurate. While The Big Short and Vice are comedic retrospectives framed through the lens of survival (i.e. American society made it through this), Don’t Look Up suggests humanity won’t make it through such an event alive...and he may not be wrong.
Exaggerated or not, Don't Look Up explores how politicians, the media, and everyday citizens would respond to catastrophic news. It could be about climate change. It could be about a pandemic. What it is, is the type of film where the main characters are so mortified by the response of politicians and the media that they can’t help but curse and scream. And yet they end up being the ones vilified for their actions. There is so much about McKay’s depiction of, frankly, everything that rings true. It’s depressing even - to have to watch seemingly sane scientists lose their minds over the fact that no one is taking them seriously.
Don’t Look Up is stressful for all the wrong reasons. The tension builds not because there is concern that the good guys won’t stop the comet but because no one in power seems willing to stop it. For some viewers, the film isn’t going to work simply because of its satirical tone and exaggerated premise, but McKay has tapped into something whose veracity should scare anyone. Without terrific performances, the film would have crumbled under the weight of its underlying themes. Everyone is spot on and gets their characters perfectly.
Don't Look Up is treaming now on Netflix.