Don’t Look Up, Cause There is Nothing There

By Teun Snijder | March 7th, 2022

Minor spoiler warning: I’ll do my best not to get into some of the plot points, but I am going to be honest with you here: If you’ve seen the trailer, that’s about what you can expect from the movie, it’s not very surprising. So yes, to discuss some of the issues I have with this movie, I will be going over some scenes.

So, Don’t Look Up has stirred up quite a conversation, hasn’t it? Is it a new conversation? No. Does it add any fresh perspective to the table? Not if you ask me. That’s really the short version of this article, but I’ll elaborate a little. This film, a supposed allegory for climate change and a satire on American media, politics and culture came out right before Christmas to get us all in the spirit of the holidays. Some of us may have watched another Hallmark movie about a woman from the big city who falls in love with a gruff lumberjack type in a small town as she unravels the meaning of Christmas.  Others watched this expose filled with stars (the cast for this movie is insane, they honestly did not need this many names for people to watch it) on how the world reacts to the end of the world…such fun. I saw it with a slight delay, the first week of 2022 and while I believe the film has very little impact and won’t age very well, it did have a surprising impact on me. I was of the opinion that this film would leave the sphere of public discussion rather swiftly. However, during the Oscar nominations announcement Don’t Look Up received nominations for Best Editing, Original Music, Original Screenplay and painfully so, Best Picture. So this movie will be around for another month and depending on what the “academy” might spoil it with in golden trophies, it might stay around even longer. Undeserved, in my opinion. Since those announcements I have not been able to shake the feeling that there may have been something I missed and you know what, on second viewing, I didn’t like it more, I didn’t like it less, but I was able to articulate a little better what my problems are with this movie.

Going into this, I did not see any trailers. I honestly had absolutely no clue what this movie was about, I just knew that every Hollywood actor was in it, so when the premise started to reveal itself, I was…well, surprised and I have to say that I don’t think studying America so extensively makes for a better viewing experience here. I really had to get used to the tone and what the movie was trying to do. And therein lies the biggest problem for me, because, what the hell is this film trying to communicate exactly? 

Let’s start with a little context. Adam McKay is the director and writer of this film. His filmography is pretty diverse, from a couple of Will Ferrell comedies (not really my cup of tea, but you do you, Adam!) to two Oscar-nominated/winning movies in the past decade: Vice and The Big Short. Let’s briefly talk about those two. The first, Vice, is a movie about Dick Cheney’s life and rise to power. It makes some pretty interesting and unique choices in how it tells its story, is genuinely funny at times and, horrifyingly so, makes the viewer very aware of the corrupt ways the war in Iraq came to be after 9/11 without being overly preachy. The same goes for The Big Short , a story about a handful of people who actually predicted the crash of the housing market in 2007 and got really rich through some smart investments. Again, a surprisingly funny take on some pretty dry, yet  socially significant events, presented in an understandable way that doesn’t shy away from the impact the events had, while maintaining the absurdity of the situation. Judging from these two films-I have not seen Anchorman or Step Brothers and I don’t think I’ll ever want to-I think Adam McKay has a pretty good understanding of how he can balance drama and humor when tackling pretty impactful events and contemporary issues in politics, media and the economy. And now, Adam McKay has returned to bring us his frustration with the way we (This is a pretty unimportant thing, but it honestly feels like he thinks he stands above the problem, when you hear him explain his own film) react to the effects of climate change. Does he again balance drama and humor to give us a realistic and useful take on the issue? Well…In my opinion, he doesn’t. Sorry Adam, perhaps I just don’t get it.

Don’t Look Up is a satire critiquing the way media and politics handle climate change. The tagline of the trailer was “Based on true events that haven’t happened…yet.” It starts with a group of scientists, one of which Jennifer Lawrence observes a comet that is on a trajectory straight to earth. With a size of between 10-15km it will literally destroy the whole world six months later when it crashes into earth. Lawrence and Dicaprio try to inform the president, played by Meryl Streep and find themselves entangled in a web of corruption, marketing and political games that reveal what’s wrong with our society, because yes people, we live in a society. Now, I say it’s a satire, which in my eyes should lead to some absurdist comedy with caricatures that remind us of real world people to provide helpful commentary on social issues through irony and sarcasm. Unfortunately, the only thing that is truly exaggerated in the allegory McKay is trying to lay out before us is the meteor that is about to hit the earth and destroy the world within days. Climate change, by many, is perceived as a slow-burn; a sort of far-future threat, so making a meteor the doomsday device within this allegory is some good satire. Literally hit us in the face with a brick from space. But then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have characters that don’t feel like exaggerations of the people we know at all. The show hosts who try to make the news “fun” are exactly like news anchors we know in the real world. Meryl Streep’s president of the United States is obviously Donald Trump, without really making any of her character traits actually funny by doing something new or different, which is unfortunate, because satire gives you a pass on being your own thing. You’re only bound by the rules you present yourself and starting off with a rock from space gives you a lot of wiggle room, but the rest of the tone of the film is incredibly cynical and very realistically represents the world we live in now.

Okay, so I’ve established that it’s not really a satire. That’s okay, right? Neither were the Big Short or Vice, but while those movies were stories that actually happened so a piece of media depicting them has inherent value when done correctly (which it is in this case), Don’t Look Up is fiction (or based on true events that haven’t happened…yet) which can make it harder to add something to a discussion you’re trying to depict. So, what does McKay add to the way social media, politics and society handle climate change with this movie?

Nothing.

Yeah, I’m disappointed too.  I recently heard it described (Unfortunately I can’t find the source where I found this, my apologies) as somebody standing on a sinking ship, constantly pointing out that the ship is sinking, screaming and yelling about the problem at other people, without offering any solutions or clever perspective. About this very issue, Richard Brody said in his New Yorker review: “In ‘Don’t Look Up,’ the star of  ‘Total Devastation’ (played by Chris Evans) makes a promotional appearance wearing a pin of his own devising, a double-headed arrow pointing both up and down, which he explains as his effort to see both sides of the issue and overcome the nation’s divisions. What he’s really insuring is the preservation of a single, unified, indivisible mass of prospective moviegoers and ticket-buyers. Don’t Look Up may be aptly unambiguous regarding the notion and danger of climate change itself, but when it comes to the politics that underlie anti-environmental policies, McKay might as well be wearing that very pin.”

Another example of this ambiguity surrounding the politics is the hilarious fact that the words Democrat and Republican aren’t spoken once throughout the entirety of the movie. Political affiliation is vague and leads to McKay not really taking a stance on anything at all and as Richard Brody describes in the quote above, this is presumably to preserve a larger audience. 

And then, all of a sudden, towards the end of the film, it suddenly decides to focus on character and this leads to one of the most compelling scenes in the entire movie. The talents of these actors are finally used to their advantage, the filmmaking becomes noticeably beautiful and it shows that behind all the bland commentary, this could have been a magnum opus for McKay’s career.

I’m reminded of a part in the film. Jennifer Lawrence asks for a drink in the White House and a general charges her money for it. A few hours later she enters the kitchen and asks a woman where she should pay for the food. “The snacks are free.”, she replies. “It’s the White House.” You don’t have to pay a subscription to see what this movie has to offer. Just read a couple of articles and look for some news clips on your phone, like you’re probably already filling part of your week with. Again, maybe I just don’t understand the movie. But looking at some of the reactions this film received you have to ask, is that really my fault?