The Crude Demagogy of “Don’t Look Up”

Adam McKay’s satire “Don’t Look Up” is a clever film that’s short on wit. The difference is that wit is multifaceted, like a gem that, however small, offers different glimmers at different angles. Cleverness exhausts itself in a single glint and then repeats itself to infinity.“Don’t Look Up,” for the record, tells the story of…

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Adam McKay’s satire “Don’t Look Up” is a clever film that’s short on wit. The difference is that wit is multifaceted, like a gem that, however small, offers different glimmers at different angles. Cleverness exhausts itself in a single glint and then repeats itself to infinity.

“Don’t Look Up,” for the record, tells the story of the discovery of a huge comet that’s heading for a direct strike on Earth that would end life on the planet; the degraded journalistic environment that trivializes the discovery and minimizes the danger; and the feckless President whose self-interested blunders allow the comet to strike, catastrophically. It’s a raucous comedy in which a tale built of near-plausible elements is told by way of exaggerated character traits, absurd situations, and high-wattage star performances. It’s also a movie about the blighted mediasphere—yet, even with the best of intentions, the movie only adds to the blight.

The comet is discovered by Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student in astronomy at Michigan State; its trajectory toward Earth is discovered by her adviser, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and they calculate that it will strike in a mere six months. They reach out to NASA and are put in touch with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (a real federal bureau, as a supertitle informs viewers), who rushes them to the White House to deliver the news in person to the President, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep). Her political party isn’t specified (nobody’s is—there’s no reference to real-world politics in the film) but her actions resemble those of Donald Trump: she nominates a Supreme Court Justice of dubious qualification and sexual scandal, falsifies scientific data to seek advantage in the midterm elections, and leaves an underling’s public racist remarks unchallenged.

When President Orlean treats the evidence and the three scientists dismissively, they go public with the news that the world is about to end. Kate and Randall talk to journalists from the New York Herald (its logo uses the same typeface as the Times) and go on a morning talk show, where they’re admonished to “keep it light.” Amid the quippy chat of the hosts, Jack (Tyler Perry) and Brie (Cate Blanchett), Kate and Randall’s apocalyptic warnings are brushed aside until Kate starts yelling on the air, making enemies of the hosts and becoming a derided social-media meme. When the President finds it politically expedient to do so, she mounts a mission to deflect the comet, exactly as the best science recommends—and then, at the urging of a tech billionaire named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), she cancels the mission and lets Peter attempt to harvest an untold fortune in rare-earth minerals from the comet instead. Meanwhile, the public is divided between those who trust the science and those who call the comet a hoax—between realists who implore their neighbors to look up at the comet and acknowledge the looming menace, and denialists whose slogan lends the movie its title.

The movie’s comedic energy comes mainly from its asides and sidebars—from the brazen rich-bully snark of the President’s fratty, young chief of staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), who’s also her son, and the promotion of a disaster film called “Total Devastation” that’s scheduled for release on the day that that comet is expected to hit, to the Internet shitposter charging that “Jewish billionaires invented this comet threat so the government can confiscate our liberty and our guns,” and the national obsession with the love life of the pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), who ultimately joins Kate and Randall at the “For Real Last Concert to Save the World,” where she croons a romantic ballad with such grimly hilarious lyrics as, “Get your head out of your ass, listen to the goddam qualified scientists. We really fucked it up . . . You’re about to die soon, everybody.”

The journalists at the Herald, rather than throwing their weight behind the scientists’ discovery of the killer comet and its impending strike, obsess about social-media engagement and quickly let the depressing story die; Peter does a staged product rollout, using children as near-robotic props, where an announcer cautions audience members not to make eye contact with him and to avoid “negative facial expressions.” In the talk-show green room, Kate rejects a dress that a stylist brings over, but Randall lets the stylist trim his beard even as he’s fending off a panic attack. The scene foreshadows his transformation into a television celebrity and a sort of nerdy sex object, who then gets co-opted into government service to give the corrupt Administration the cover of scientific legitimacy. The best of the riffs—because seemingly random and oblique yet ultimately capped with a one-liner of political psychology that’s deeper and more mysterious than anything else in the film—is the trivial twist of a three-star general (Paul Guilfoyle) who, outside the Oval Office, charges the scientists heftily for chips and water (which are supposed to be free).

It’s no surprise to learn that the actors improvised copiously, because the movie has a riffy and zingy feel to it. Yet the rapid editing of nearly arbitrarily composed images creates a straitlaced rigidity. The tone of improv comedy comes without the sense of risk; the one-liners are hammered into the confines of character and story like tiles in a grid, and the only excesses are a handful of eruptive, televised tirades that play like emblematic “Network” moments to rouse viewers’ fist pumps. What is surprising is that the script was written before the COVID pandemic—the movie is a startlingly accurate view of the willful and venal denialism that afflicted responses to the crisis at all levels of government and business, and that has been matched throughout by the cultlike rejection of medical counsel by individuals in all strata and sectors of society.

Those cognate details, and the fast comedic dialogue (the President’s vain babble, Brie’s coldly cynical bedroom banter), make “Don’t Look Up” stand out, at the very least, as an on-target political cartoon expanded to the scale of a grandiose mural, with all the pomposity and monotony that such an inflation suggests. The movie lives by its place in the discourse, such as that discourse is. It satirizes the trivializing flow of celebrity gossip and light-toned frivolity, of clickbait pushing aside investigative reporting and of tech moguls not only usurping government power but commandeering public discourse. Yet its own anti-aesthetic of neutral images and predigested narrative efficiency, its celebrity feast of star turns and flashy performances, and its simplistic anger-stoking and pathos-wringing mask the movie’s fundamental position of getting itself talked about while utterly eliding any real sense of politics or political confrontation. It is set largely in and around government, but suggests nothing like any political opposition, such as in Congress or state houses, to President Orlean’s actions and inaction regarding the comet. (The closest to it is the wishful radical populism of Orlean supporters’ spontaneous uprising at a rally where they realize they’ve been lied to.)

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