Netflix UK film review: Don’t Look Up
Ivan Radford | On 02, Jan 2022
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet
In 2015, The Good Fight’s Robert and Michelle King debuted Braindead, a sci-fi comedy on CBS, which had an outrageous suggestion: that a race of alien slugs had climbed into people’s brains and were taking control of the planet. How else to explain that the increasingly divided, politicised, irrational nature of modern US society? The show was cancelled after one season. Fast forward to the brink of 2021 and 2022 and Adam McKay has unveiled a similarly far-fetched satire, Don’t Look Up, which posits that a giant comet is about to plummet into planet Earth. It’s an urgent, imminent disaster that could be taken as metaphor for climate change or the coronavirus pandemic. Either way, the alarming thing is that nobody can be bothered to do much about it.
The discovery comes from grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), which naturally means that the world only pays attention when it’s spoken by male astronomer Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) – one of the subtler details that help counter the in-your-face comedy. And so, as Kate becomes increasingly distressed and dismissed as hysterical, Dr Mindy becomes a popular face on the TV circuit – including talk show The Daily Rip, hosted by the immaculately teethed Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). They don’t want to hear warnings of impending doom and would rather discuss a celebrity’s recent break-up, but even they’re not as bad as the politicians, with the US president (Meryl Streep) wanting to wait until after the midterm elections to do anything and her chief of staff (Jonah Hill) – also her son – too busy mocking scientific experts to listen.
This sea of short-term, consumerist, social media-driven obliviousness is steered, to some degree, by Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a tech mogul who’s part Mark Zuckerberg, part Willy Wonka and all kinds of creepy. Rylance’s daydreamy presence slots right into the turn-it-up-to-11 tone, with each star cast member delivering their dialogue with the nuance of a sledgehammer. Some hit the mark more than others, with Jonah Hill stealing every scene going with his privileged nepotism (“There’s you, the working class, there’s us, the cool rich – and then there’s them…” he tells a rally) and Cate Blanchett fantastic as the preening presenter. If DiCaprio’s twitching genius feels a bit overcooked, it’s Lawrence’s frustrated constant that grounds the whole thing, even as the world around her (including a skateboarder played by Timothée Chalamet) turns her into a meme.
The problem here, though, is less the volume at which the film’s message is shouted and more the length it takes to shout it – at 155 minutes, the film is almost an hour longer than, say, Dr Strangelove, and it doesn’t need any of those bloated, superfluous minutes to make its point. That saps a lot of momentum and humour away, leaving the jokes coming in fits and starts.
The result isn’t as subtle or as funny as Braindead, but it’s full of keener observations than its surface suggests. Underneath it all, there’s a darkness that’s genuinely haunting – halfway through, in one standout moment, Ariana Grande sings about how much the human race has failed, while a crowd cheers on enthusiastically. The final act recalls the recent, bleak comedy Silent Night and while that deceptive downer of an edge might not sound uplifting, it’s the conclusion needed for the film’s deep impact to land. Like the politicians portrayed on screen, though, you wish it got there a lot sooner.