For a crazy satire about a comet destroying the planet, don’t look up definitely takes you on an emotional journey. The movie — headed by writer and director Adam McKay, best known for films like stepbrothers and Anchorman — begins hilariously, with big names trading one-liners amid an approaching apocalypse. But over its long run time, it slowly turns into something else. Laughter gives way to anger, frustration and eventually a kind of desperate hope. It’s a trajectory that serves as an uncanny mirror to the last two years of pandemic life – just don’t expect lighthearted fun.
don’t look up waste no time getting started. It begins with a pair of Michigan astronomers, Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate (Jennifer Lawrence), discovering a massive comet in the sky that is anywhere from three to six miles across. But the excitement of the discovery soon turns to terror, when the pair realize they’re on a collision course with Earth, and it’s set to trigger an extinction level in about six months. They rush to the White House to notify the president, played by Meryl Streep, but must wait hours while she must resolve a much more pressing nude model dilemma. What follows is a delightfully wacky exchange, with the president and her chief of staff (Jonah Hill), who is also her self-centered son, debating the political ramifications of revealing that everyone is about to die for the midterm elections. “The timing, it’s just horrendous,” the president says, noting that she’ll let her own people — from an Ivy League school, of course — judge things.
It would all be absurd if it didn’t feel so close to reality. What should be the one thing that matters to everyone on the planet — finding a way to prevent the destruction of all life — is drowned out by election season and, later, the celebrity breakup. Early on, this contrast is played for laughs; the astronomers struggle to get their message across because no one wants to hear bad news. They go to a talk show where they are told to keep it light. When Kate (Lawrence) explodes in frustration and tells the hosts that everyone is going to die, she becomes a meme.
The absurdism that reflects our own reality just a little too neatly is aided by a great cast. This movie is packed with talent. I could see Streep and Hill chatting all day, and Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi are perfectly cast as the back and forth pop star power couple. Meanwhile, Lawrence does a great job of channeling the anger I know I would feel in her position. Other actors do a great job with smaller but pivotal roles; Timothée Chalamet as a painfully sincere Twitch streamer/skatepunk, Ron Perlman as an absolutely racist war hero. Everyone brings it.
But slowly that good humor gives way and don’t look up becomes unpleasantly real. Once the message goes out into the world, it becomes polarizing. Randall (DiCaprio) turns into a social media star, a handsome scientist who is the face of the government’s ever-changing plan to try to fend off the comet, while Kate becomes a pariah for her realistic demeanor. A piece of space rock that will wipe out life on Earth eventually creates political divides. Some are terrified, others don’t even believe it’s real. As working-class voters grow hopeful about the jobs the comet will provide, an evil tech tycoon is salivating at all the rare earths it contains. At one point, Randall is forced to ask: What’s the point of trillions of dollars if we’re all dead? He laughed out of the room.
It is infuriating to see the population arguing instead of working together to ensure their literal survival. Sadly, little of the movie seems far-fetched… well, the past two years on real planet Earth. We’ve all seen the dividing lines emerging from a genuine existential crisis during the pandemic, and don’t look up is an eerie reflection of that reality. You might call aspects of it crazy or unrealistic, but then again, many of us spent the early days of the pandemic learning how to bake bread while watching tiger king. don’t look up exaggerating a bit, but it’s not far off.
It may stretch a little too long – the film clocks in at nearly two and a half hours – but the journey don’t look up taking viewers is fascinating. I went from laughing at the absurdity of a military general swindling some astronomers out of $20, to being genuinely angry at everyone who not only ignored the obvious, but in some cases rooted for the damn comet. By the end, when the collision became impossible to ignore, I felt bad for everyone involved. don’t look up has a largely bleak view of humanity, but it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. (You should definitely stay for the end credits where it gets hilarious again.)
I’m not sure if the movie made me realize anything new about myself or life during the pandemic, but it sure was cathartic to see it all happen in such a dramatic way.
don’t look up coming to select theaters on December 10, before Netflix releases on December 24.