Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s ensemble comedy film on Netflix about two scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who struggle to convey to the public, and to authority figures, the urgency of trying to thwart a comet that they discover is on-course to annihilate the planet.
Overall, the film, which satirizes world governments’ lack of response to climate change, works as a broad comedy. As a piece of cinema, it’s not quite an artistic masterpiece, but is elevated by some great performances.
Easily, the biggest flaw of the film is its exorbitant runtime, at two hours and 18 minutes. The first hour and a half contains most of the fat — and myriad subplots — that could’ve been trimmed, as we move from one drawn out scene to the next, including some that take place in literal waiting rooms.
Still, there are flashes of brilliance, here and there, in the first half. For instance, a clever bit of foreshadowing occurs when DiCaprio’s Dr. Randall Mindy is first making the whiteboard calculations about the trajectory of the comet discovered by Lawrence’s PhD candidate, Kate Dibiasky. When Randall’s number crunching results in a predicted “0.0” distance the comet will be from earth in six months time, he quickly erases the figure with his hand — this foreshadows the denial the scientists face from the U.S. President and others.
The movie quickly fails to keep up with the fast pace of the opening scene.
The next scenario features Kate and Randall waiting for a meeting with Meryl Streep’s President Orlean. And while the lesson — that the characters are being brushed off — is clear, some of the boredom that the characters experience while waiting a whole day in a White House waiting room does travel via osmosis through the screen, unfortunately, and onto the viewer.
When we finally do get the meeting with President Orlean, there’s much fun to be had between her, the neurotic Randall, and the matter-of-fact Kate playing off each other. And Jonah Hill’s juvenile Jason Orlean — the son of the President and the Chief of Staff — is an absolute scene-stealer, here and throughout the film.
Much of the humor is directed at arrogant authority figures, like the dismissive President Orlean — however, occasionally, the film also punches down, seemingly, to the viewers themselves, which is another flaw.
For instance, the movie condescendingly implies that the general public would be more interested in the breakup of a celebrity couple — played by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi — than the end of the world.
Another scene features wonderfully air-headed talk show hosts, played by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett. When the scientists go on TV to warn the public of the coming comet, Kate stresses the urgency of the situation in reaction to the TV hosts’ aloofness. We learn later, in a newsroom debriefing, that the general public’s reaction to this is to create mean-spirited memes about Kate, while Randall becomes an overnight celebrity for his movie-star good-looks and Xanax-induced coolness in front of the camera.
Here again, the humor seems to down-punch at the general public, which would hypothetically vilify Kate’s legitimate call to action, rather than spark a backlash against the TV hosts for brushing her off, which seems more likely.
As the film goes on, Randall becomes somewhat-corrupted by overnight fame, while Kate gets increasingly banished from playing any role central to the U.S. government’s response, however hapless, to the deadly comet.
It’s not until the last hour of the film that both the comedy, and the quality of the filmmaking, seem finally to rise to the occasion. The brevity of the filmic language makes great use of metaphor for the climate crisis, through a quick shot of a stuffed polar bear surrounded by stacks of bottled water at a convenience store that Kate now works in, for instance. And a do-nothing stoner skater, played by Timothée Chalamet, is a welcome point of levity as the apathetic Kate’s new companion.
Kate’s ground-level POV — that of a failed scientific messenger who listlessly engages in petty vandalism alongside Chalamet’s Yule — is compelling enough to make us want a fleshed-out indie drama of this section of the film alone.
As it stands, the finished product doesn’t give Kate much of a character arc, sadly. Randal, however, does make a swing into corruption, then back on the side of good once again, giving him something of a satisfying character journey to follow.
The film gets increasingly surreal as it goes along, and the filmmaking seemingly becomes increasingly more focused, as well. The occasional unstable camera movements seem aimless near the beginning of the film, but by the second half they more successfully convey a guerrilla-filmmaking look that reflects humanity’s uncertainty.
Overall, Don’t Look Up is not a bad movie experience for your average person. You’ll get to see a huge cast of some of your favorite movie stars in some pretty goofy and wild situations, making it a ripe excuse for munching on some popcorn and exerting a few chuckles. However, despite its heady ambitions — ironically — the film works even better when you don’t stop to think about it too deeply.
'Don't Look Up' works best as a star-studded piece of comedic popcorn fodder. Though it falls short of its high-minded cinematic ambitions, the strong performances and more self-assured second half make it worth your time.