Make Disaster Films great again
Don’t Look Up (2021): 7 out of 10: Killer asteroid heads towards earth as two astronomers try to warn a disinterested and self-serving nation.
The Good: Well say what you want. This is a good cast. If anything, it is a little too good. Some of the acting choices initially rubbed me the wrong way. (DiCaprio’s anxiety, Lawrence’s nose rings) but the characters grew on me as the film went on.
As the screenshots below show, Don’t Look Up also has some excellent production values. Unsurprising for a film with this cast and pedigree. Though some found the film a touch long, I thought it moved at a decent pace and Don’t Look Up felt neither rushed nor padded.
Don’t Look Up also has a nice ending that fits what has come before it. Reminds me of Rogue One’s ending. The movie properly earned its denouement.
The Bad: You know, sometimes satire can be a little too broad. I understand that there have been claims that satire is dead. When one can watch Idiocracy as if it was a documentary about the future, it can be difficult to satirize real life. But there are ways around this. None of which creator Adam McKay successfully implements.
(Change the scale). If you are satirizing a possible worldwide disaster, make the allegory smaller. Focus on one town or one family and then use thier crisis to illustrate your point about the world as a whole. This is a very common approach and has been used since almost the invention of writing. (It is a popular technique in the Bible, for example). It is common because it is effective. (A classic example of this type of implementation is Animal Farm as an allegory for Communism in the Soviet Union. Or Gilligan’s Island as an allegory of a united post-war Western Europe.) Alas, instead of making the end of the world a bite sized satire, McKay inexplicably simply substitutes one crisis that ends the world for a different crisis that ends the world.
The other approach is to play the movie as a straight absurdest farce Airplane! style. (David Zucker’s own attempt to inject environmental messaging in their kind of comedy (The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear) is a cautionary tale however.) One of the Don’t Look Up’s criticisms is that people are so stuck on the trivia of everyday life they are blind to the disasters right in front of them. The problem is simply that the film does not really offer a better solution on how to react to certain doom. Watching gossip about Ariana Grande may not be an appropriate response to a killer asteroid heading towards earth, but crying uncontrollably doesn’t seem like a better path in reality. Memento Mori. We are all going to die whether we watch Ariana Grande or scream at God.
McKay needed to write a sharper satire… less broad. A lot less broad. A good example of this is the titular slogan Don’t Look Up, where the obvious Trump espy (Streep) has her people chant don’t look up as a slogan to solve the obvious problem. The problem is that while this would have been a sharp criticism of the reaction to the pandemic. (If anything, the scene where the comet becomes visible and the “Trump” crowd turns on its creator seems ridiculously optimistic. We have scores of examples of people yelling this is a hoax as they are being put on ventilators for thier last days.) It really doesn’t apply to the topic at hand. Once again, real life outdoes the satire.
The Ugly: This is a movie about global warming? Okay. Are you sure? A killer meteorite is a horrible substitute for Global Warming because A: It is not the fault of mankind. And B: It is an obvious threat that is binary in its outcome. (As Jennifer Lawrence’s diet app countdown shows. There is before the meteorite hits and after the meteorite hits.) Global Warming, on the other hand, is basically man made (or at the least man influenced) and is (excuse the pun) a very slow burn.
The problem with fighting global warming is that it is not an obvious short-term threat. The exact opposite of a giant space rock hurling towards the planet. So the allegory makes no sense whatsoever.
That Don’t Look Up makes for a better parody of the pandemic response was certainly not lost on some people in the production. Certainly, they must have quickly realised that they were losing the plot quite quickly as the pandemic reared its ugly head during pre-production. Why the film didn’t intelligently pivot at that time is a bit of a mystery.
In Conclusion: As giant asteroid hurtles towards earth movies go, Don’t Look Up is seemingly on team Deep Impact rather than team Armageddon. (Some have argued team Melancholia, but that film is a whole different kettle of fish), Fans of both killer meteorite movies and sharp satire are sure to walk away disappointed mumbling of lost opportunities given the budget and cast. The recent Gerard Butler vehicle Greenland outshines it in the killer meteorite category. And while I am hard pressed to find any recent satires to compare it to (They are thin on the ground. A friend recommended The Death of Stalin so I will have to check that out) Don’t Look Up is certainly no Dr. Strangelove or Idiocracy or, for that matter, Tropic Thunder. A missed opportunity when all is said and done.