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Arts Entertainments

“Don’t Look Up”, Adam McKay’s political farce, is bleakly realistic

The new film from Adam McKay is a lot more believable than you might want a blackly comic disaster movie about the end of the world to be. In “Don’t Look Up”, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as Dr Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, two astronomers based at Michigan State University. While researching in an observatory one evening, Kate spots a comet heading the Earth’s way from the edge of the solar system. Randall then calculates its trajectory on a whiteboard and reaches a discouraging conclusion. In six months and 14 days, a chunk of rock between five and ten kilometres wide will smack into the planet, wiping out all life in an instant.

Despite being played by two of Hollywood’s most glamorous A-listers, Randall and Kate aren’t typical disaster-movie scientists. Randall is greasy, dishevelled and prone to panic attacks; Kate is hot-tempered and prone to despair. The authority figures they meet aren’t the heroic types seen in most equivalent films, either. When the two scientists take their findings to the White House, the vapid president (Meryl Streep, pictured) and her brattish chief of staff (Jonah Hill) are too busy dealing with sex scandals to think about a comet classed as a “planet killer” (the president’s political party isn’t specified). Their breezy plan is to “sit tight and assess”.

The scientists’ next port of call is a morning talk show where the shiny hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) are happy to hear about the impending extinction-level event, as long as Randall and Kate “keep it light”. There is a faint glimmer of hope, though. In theory, nuclear missiles could splinter the comet before it gets too close to Earth, but no one is willing to act until there are pressing political and commercial reasons to do so. Saving the world is not reason enough.

Mr McKay, the maker of such broad comedies as “Anchorman” (2004) and “Step Brothers” (2008), and two political docu-comedies, “The Big Short” (2015) and “Vice” (2018), was inspired to write his acerbic satire by the collective response to climate change. “The original idea for the script,” he has said, “was the feeling of how crazy it is to live when there’s a crystal-clear threat that is being expressed from scientists [all over] the world, and yet we chug along like it’s fine.” With this theme in mind, “Don’t Look Up” was due to go into production in April 2020. The arrival of the pandemic delayed shooting by several months. It also changed what viewers will take away from the film. Rather than appearing to be about the climate crisis, it now seems to be specifically about covid-19.

Many of its concerns have become depressingly familiar over the past two years. There is, for instance, the ignorant scoffing at science and scientists. The comet is named Comet Dibiasky, in honour of Kate, and this is used by some pundits as an excuse to doubt her: after all, they argue, how can you trust anyone who has the same name as a comet? The wide-ranging, well-targeted screenplay, by Mr McKay and David Sirota, also ticks off the social-media memes, wrong-headed protests and celebrity cash-ins familiar from recent months. Even the obsession with space flight shared by Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk is represented by a silver-haired tech zillionaire (Mark Rylance), who sounds like a malfunctioning android but is still less eccentric than the people he is parodying.

The price Mr McKay pays for his prescience is that “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t seem as farcical or imaginative as it would have done if the pandemic hadn’t happened. The film has other flaws, too. Long and slow, as so many Netflix productions are, it can’t quite muster the ever-increasing antic energy that its literally Earth-shattering scenario demands. But the fact is that a project which started life as a mordant, science-fiction-heavy lampoon of environmental shilly-shallying now comes across as a sober, accurate chronicle of the handling of the coronavirus by the media, politicians and society at large. You don’t watch the grim absurdity and laughingly exclaim: “People probably would be as ridiculous as that in the circumstances!” You are more likely to watch it and sigh: “Yes, people really were as ridiculous as that—and they still are.”

“Don’t Look Up” is released in cinemas on December 10th and will stream on Netflix from December 24th


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