I remember Don’t Look Up at one point being one of my most anticipated films of 2021. It has a massive cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet and more. I also liked Adam McKay’s more recent dramatic work with The Big Short and Vice, and I was interested in him doing a full on satire with his latest film. However as it approached its release date, I had my doubts. The trailers weren’t the best and the reactions coming out of it weren’t exactly confidence inspiring. Still I gave it a chance and overall I’m prepared to say that I like it, though I completely understand why some people dislike it.
I do like the premise of the movie, with the lead characters trying to warn the world about a coming disaster while the world doesn’t listen, definitely works for a satire. It is a comedy, and while I wouldn’t say it failed, most of the humour didn’t work. There are funny jokes throughout but not as many as you’d hope for. I was generally entertained throughout, even if it was never that great in the first two acts, just a mildly funny comedy with very mixed satire (more on that later). The movie is around 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and it really didn’t need to be that long. I wouldn’t say that I was bored during the movie, but it all felt very drawn out and not a lot happens or is said to really justify that length, and the comedy and satire isn’t good enough to fully sustain things all the way through. I feel like on rewatch I’d find it harder to get through. Strangely enough, it gets into much more dramatic territory in the third act, and its surprisingly quite effective, and its far better than what came earlier. Looking back at the rest of the movie, it actually works much better as a terrifying and depressing end of the world downer (with darkly comedic elements) than a smart political and social satire. Another issue is that the tone is all over the place. McKay’s last two movies jumped between drama and comedy as well, but it feels messier in Don’t Look Up. Until the third act, it just can’t seem to decide whether it’s trying to be an apocalyptic drama and a mostly straight-faced satire, or a full on spoof. I think it needed to either be more straight faced about it or lean much further into absurdity.
While I enjoy the movie, the actual satire is one of the weaker elements unfortunately. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen of Don’t Look Up is that its very obvious and not subtle at all, much like McKay’s last two movies. And I’ll always stay true to my belief that its not inherently bad if a film is more obvious than subtle. Sometimes it is refreshing for a movie to be more direct about things. The problem is that a lot of the satire just feels a bit too obvious, in the sense that its too easy. For example, many of the characters are caricatures meant to represent types or groups of people, but they feel very overdone and a little lazy, the upbeat news anchors, the president and politicians who doesn’t know what they’re doing, dumb celebrities, etc., and McKay doesn’t do anything with them beyond the obvious. There’s nothing particularly daring or insightful said in this film, and the caricatures and not-subtle messaging makes the film hard to be engaging. I will say that some of the ways that people respond in the movie is like how people would respond in real life. However for every one of those moments, there’s moments where the satirising of aspects of today’s society isn’t quite right. An example is when Jennifer Lawrence’s character becomes a meme of sorts, but the memes that are very displayed are outdated top-text and bottom-text meme formats from the 2000s. It doesn’t break the movie or anything but moments like these go towards the film not fully succeeding at being a satire of today. While I wouldn’t say that the movie talks down to people and is condescending (although I can see why people would see it that way), there is a general sense of self-importance, and the feeling that they are more insightful and smarter than they really are. Part of that is the fact that the comet in the film is intended as a metaphor for climate change, and the movie is apparently meant to urge people to take it seriously. If we look at the movie from this perspective, Don’t Look Up really only spreads awareness that climate change exists and does and says nothing beyond that, at most its only preaching to the choir. Also when you really think about it, the comet doesn’t really make for a particularly good metaphor for climate change, especially in the context of the film (without spoiling anything). I wouldn’t normally look this deep into a movie like this, but McKay and his co-writer really seem to believe that they are saying something important about climate change, so I thought it was worth mentioning.
One of Don’t Look Up’s biggest selling points is its absurdly large cast, which is no doubt why so many people wanted to check it out in the first place. While I wouldn’t say that any of these actors are even close to giving career best performances in this movie, most of them are pretty good in their parts. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers who discover the comet heading for Earth and try to warn people about it. This is the third of DiCaprio’s more comedic performances after The Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he has shown himself to be surprisingly great at comedy. He’s also really good here at portraying his stressed and panic stricken character, and he especially has a great and notable rage sequence in the second half of the movie. Lawrence is also great and entertaining, she’s especially good in the scenes of comedy. DiCaprio, Lawrence and Rob Morgan (who is also great) are the best performances in the movie because they were the only performances and characters that actually felt somewhat grounded and felt like actual characters, in contrast to every other actor. When Meryl Streep showed up as the president, at first I thought she was phoning her performance, but I actually think she’s pretty good. I soon came to realise that most major actors in the cast play an over the top and obvious caricature, and so they all feel underutilised to a degree. With that said I think most of them actually work in their parts. The highlights for me were Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, and Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman is also a scene stealer in his 5 minutes. So while it is disappointing that this stacked cast weren’t really utilised to their fullest potential, at least most of them gave decent performances. Notice that I said ‘most’ instead of ‘all’, the sole exception is Mark Rylance, I have no idea what he was doing in this movie. Rylance plays a tech billionaire, and I definitely get the point of his character. He’s a riff on Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and every other rich tech CEO right now, and it makes sense for that kind of character to be in this movie. However, his performance is so weird and strange from his line deliveries and the way he decides to play the role, and not in a good way. I think the best way I can describe it as he’s trying to play Joe Biden playing Elon Musk. I know that everyone is an over-the-top caricature in this movie, but Rylance is on a completely different wavelength from the others that he feels completely out of place.
Adam McKay’s directing style in this movie won’t work for everyone. Most notable is the editing, which is very fast, messy, and often cuts to a lot of brief clips and images, similar to what McKay did with The Big Short and Vice. If you hated the editing in Vice, you’ll probably hate the editing in Don’t Look Up too. I will admit that I liked the editing in McKay’s unofficial political trilogy, but while I mostly liked the editing in Don’t Look Up, some of it got on my nerves a little bit at points. However, I will say that it actually does work very well in some moments in the third act and worked to give some parts some emotional punch to them. Editing aside, a lot of the other technical elements are strong. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is great, for the most part its not really a movie that needs to be particularly well shot, but he does make the most of it when he can. Nicholas Britell is reliably great as the composer, and his score is one of the strongest parts of the film. Its definitely not on the level as his some of his other work like Succession or Vice, but its still great. The budget is absolutely insane at $75 million, and watching the movie, most of the film really didn’t need to have that large of a budget. With that said, the scenes involving large visual effects from comets to rockets were quite good.
Don’t Look Up is already proving to be incredibly divisive amongst people. If you really aren’t a fan of McKay’s style from his past two movies, I think that you’ll find his latest film to be a struggle. I can completely understand why some people are really disliking the movie. I don’t think it really succeeds, particularly as a satire, and even from a comedy standpoint it could’ve been better. Still, it has its moments (both comedic and dramatic), some of the technical elements are strong, and most of the performances from the cast are decent. I recommend checking it out at the very least.