Don’t Look Up  Review – Adam McKay Delivers A Strong Pre-apocalyptic Movie Filled With Solid Performances
Post-apocalyptic movies have always been around to caution viewers about the things we can lose if an extinction-level event happens and how we should mend our ways. While they’re amazing in their own right, it’s safe to say that the sense of optimism that humanity is going to survive an apocalypse is misplaced. Because we as a species aren’t built to survive almost anything that’s coming our way. Just look at how we are dealing with the COVID pandemic. Now, for some reason, we’ve resorted to nihilism to cope with the inevitability of death because we don’t know how to channel our fears and the people who we should hold accountable. And that’s one of the reasons why a pre-apocalyptic movie like Don’t Look Up (2021) is exactly what we need right now.
Don’t Look Up is written and directed by Adam McKay and based on a story by McKay and journalist/columnist/political commentator David Sirota. The plot of the movie is kicked off by Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a low-level astronomer who discovers a comet and relays the information to her team to celebrate the occasion. But celebration soon turns into mortal dread when Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) i.e. Dibiasky’s senior calculates that the comet is going to kill Earth. They relay the information to Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) so that he can inform US President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) about the situation and then she can act on it. After a lot of initial hesitation, Orlean decides to nuke the comet and deviate it from its Earth-bound trajectory. But Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the CEO of a tech company who has his fingers in many pies intervenes and derails, well, everything.
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The degree of Don’t Look Up’s relevance is very obvious. The parallels between Orlean and every single US President (or any world leader, for that matter) who doesn’t take decisions based on scientific facts and instead prioritizes their election campaign is apparent. The similarities between Isherwell and every tech CEO that is sucking the life out of Earth under the garb of evolving/saving humanity is incredibly on-the-nose. In addition to that, McKay doesn’t shy away from showing how shamelessly governments back private parties just because they’re either funding their political aspirations or their little experiments benefit the government’s missions in more ways than one. There’s nothing indirect about it because this isn’t the time to be so. It’s time to be direct and call out the guilty parties as loudly as possible; which is exactly what McKay does. And he reserves the subtlety for his portrayal of nihilism and how we as a species can deal with it.
Initially, through Mindy and Dibiasky’s journey McKay tries to help us understand where the frustration of the hundreds of screaming climate activists and scientific experts come from. He shows us how unnerving it can be to have all this information in the palm of your hand and then be disallowed to do anything about it because nobody wants to listen. And while confronting the pointlessness of it all, McKay arrives at this morally ambiguous position from where he asks the audience if we want to face the real-life iteration of the movie’s event with our family and friends, with our drinking partner, or with those who are present with you at an end-of-the-world orgy. That sounds vaguely conservative on the surface. But upon a little introspection, it seems like a plea to bring back the value of our lives which we have lost in this mad dash to stay “relevant” by buying the latest tech, following the latest social media trends, and saying how we don’t fear death even though we don’t really know what the fear of death actually feels like.
In doing so, McKay essentially says that if we can come to terms with the fragility of our existence, fear for ourselves, and identify the things that mean a lot to us, we can make informed decisions. No, not in a cliched way by switching off the lights or closing the water tap or separating the garbage while big corporations and the rich continue to damage the planet on a gargantuan scale. But by thinking about who we are voting for. By actually listening to scientists who have dedicated their lives to the one thing that can save humanity instead of turning them into digestible jokes. And by putting Earth over everything else instead of buying into a fantasy of inhabiting another planet if Earth goes up in flames created by a walking meme masquerading as the next Einstein of our generation. Talking about cliches, all this heady commentary is slightly cheapened by the characterization of Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) who falls into the sexist “woman sleeping her way to the top” trope. Every other character is brilliantly written. Brie isn’t.
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After doing a brilliant job in No Time To Die (2021), cinematographer Linus Sandgren departs from his usual, calm style of capturing his movies’ characters to match McKay’s chaotic vision. Sandgren uses the camera to invade Mindy and Dibiasky’s private space via extreme close-ups to capture the discomfort and helplessness they experience throughout the movie. He reserves the wide shots to reveal the minutely crafted sets (courtesy of production designer Clayton Hartley, art director Brad Ricker, and set decorators Kyra Friedman Curcio and Tara Pavoni) which reflect what humanity has reduced itself to. And along with the VFX team, he uses a lot of extremely wide shots to showcase the vulnerable nature of planet Earth.
Editor Hank Corwin does a fine job of tying together all these visuals. Some of the conversation scenes are coarsely cut together. But the frequent and quick mixing of stock footage of plants, insects, and animals with the movie’s scenes has a profound effect as it manages to establish the stakes. Nicholas Britell’s music is as chaotic as the cinematography and editing, and weirdly reminiscent of David Holmes’s work in the Ocean’s trilogy.
Coming to the performances, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are the main focus in this insanely stacked cast. They’re vastly different in terms of characterization, initially. But it’s funny to see Mindy and Dibiasky rub off on each other throughout the course of the movie and the finesse with which DiCaprio and Lawrence essay that transition. Also, DiCaprio and Lawrence’s freakouts are truly a work of art. They are famous for it because they do it in almost every movie. Yet, no two freakouts are the same. And they don’t just scream loudly while contorting their faces. There’s a certain level of nuance to it so that what they’re saying pierces the screen and goes straight to your heart.
Meryl Streep is fantastically annoying. So is Jonah Hill. Their characters are truly punchable. Mark Rylance, as always, is brilliant. He doesn’t appear scary at first glance. But he has a pretty spine-chilling moment made all the more creepy by his fake teeth. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are adequately slimy. Rob Morgan is like a beacon of calm amidst this chaos. Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, and Michael Chiklis’s extended cameos are enjoyable as hell. Also, keep an eye out for Chris Evans and Ishaan Khatter’s (yes, Ishaan Khatter!) cameos. They’re fun.
In conclusion, Don’t Look Up is one of the aptest movies for the times we are living in. Adam McKay manages to generate a certain kind of fear through this fictional scenario (that can become true at any moment because that’s how fragile Earth is) that’ll hopefully ignite self-respect among people. They’ll learn to value their lives and hold those people accountable who are telling them to do the exact opposite. But he isn’t too adamant about it as his movie essentially says that if you don’t love yourself or love anyone else, you can die in an orgy during the apocalypse. It’s your choice. However, when death is the final destination, is it really a choice (apologies for The Matrix: Resurrections hangover)? Jokes apart, please do watch Don’t Look Up and voice your opinions about the decay of humanity. while doing your TikTok dances and Instagram remixes (it’s something that the movie points out). They’re not mutually exclusive.