A small group of astronomers discovers a comet hurtling toward earth on a direct collision course. They calculate exactly how big it is and where and when it will hit us. Unless something is done about it, all life on earth will be wiped out in one big bang in just over six months’ time.
Leonardo di Caprio is the Professor and Jennifer Lawrence his PhD student who first spots the comet. These two take on the mission of warning mankind of its impending doom starting, as you might expect, at the White House, where they encounter an administration too preoccupied with the mid-term elections to pay much attention. Surely they will do better by going straight to high-rating breakfast TV? Well….maybe if they’d had a bit of media training first, and didn’t have to compete with the program’s main guest, a vapid pop princess milking her latest romantic break-up for all it’s worth.
In short, the public reaction to their earth-shattering news seems to be: meh.
I’ve seen Don’t Look Up described as both disaster comedy and sci-fi satire. The former is probably the more accurate description, because while the movie scores plenty of king hits on such targets as political humbug, social media idiocy, celebrity trash culture and the essential dumbness of the infotainment media, it never quite achieves the stripped-down satirical savagery of Dr Strangelove, of which Don’t Look Up aspires to be a latter-day version. At least that’s my theory.
In satires like this, you need a clear target and clear character types – stereotypes, even. In Dr Strangelove the target was the insanity of nuclear war, and the various players were suitable caricatures: the mad scientist, the crazed, trigger-happy generals, the self-serving politicians.
Don’t Look Up is widely accepted to be an allegory about climate change. I didn’t even know that till after I’d watched it and read some online commentary, so it can’t have worked as well as the makers hoped. They do say it’s also intended as a swipe at science denial generally, a point which didn’t escape my obtuseness.
One of the problems is that so much of the satire is blunted by a) overacting and b) sentimentality. Di Caprio is okay as the rumpled daggy scientist who doesn’t know how to headline his story and gets bogged down in technical detail on prime time TV. Jennifer Lawrence as his more articulate offsider dives in to deliver the bad news more pithily, but her angry tone results in an instant social media backlash and she is trolled for witchiness while he becomes the latest social media darling – hashtag Scientist I Would Like To F**k.
This is all good sharp commentary, but the satire around these two lead characters is blunted by his shouty overacting and her one-dimensionality. I think she’s supposed to represent some kind of millennial purity of mind, but with her expressionless acting she just comes across as sullen. Can’t help thinking she’s mainly there for her cool zeitgeisty beauty, which is considerable.
Back to that lack of clarity. Meryl Streep plays the President of the United States. There is of course nothing wrong with her acting, but I can’t help thinking the role would have been better played by a man, and one in the Trumpian mould at that, since the President is depicted as a populist who wants to make America great again and whose supporters wear red baseball caps. But we don’t see that till the end, and meanwhile the satirical message is muddied as the audience looks for parallels with Hillary Clinton.
The wonderful Mark Rylance plays the tech-obsessed billionaire who comes up with his own bat-crazy-but-it-might-just-work scheme to save the planet. The scene where he announces his vision is eerily, hilariously like the real-life spectacle of Mark Zuckerberg launching Meta. Rylance’s character is indeed part Zuckerberg, part Elon Musk and this works well as far as it goes. But Rylance’s flawless performance aside, the script overplays it. Yes, yes, we get that folks like Zuckerberg and Musk aren’t exactly people people, but do you have to show them being nasty to children to make the point?
Sometimes the satire does hit the mark. Cate Blanchett is superb as the sleekly sexy, immaculately groomed but staggeringly vain and self-absorbed TV host who trades inane teases and jokes with her co-anchor (a jovial black man) no matter what the gravity of the story they are presenting.
Ariana Grande as the silly pop diva is terrific, and her character and the scripting here are perfectly judged. Ten points to her for agreeing to send herself up so comprehensively. Watch for the scene where, spotlit and sparkling like a wedding cake in a vast arena, she performs an over-the-top power ballad about the crisis facing humanity. There’s a wonderful contrast between the banality of her lyrics and the extravagant bombast of the production.
The ending is a good one. There’s even a touch of the comic absurdity of the last scene in Dr Strangelove. This refreshing last-minute wit compensates somewhat for the sentimentality of the previous scene involving the Professor’s little group and their nearest and dearest.
You can watch it on Netflix, and make sure you catch the final FINAL satirical scene at the end of the credits. SPOILER ALERT: it’s a cracker of a joke about selfies.