Don't Look Up (2021) By Adam McKay - Movie Review
Don't Look Up (2021) Directed by: Adam McKay Writers: Adam McKay (screenplay) David Sirota (story by) Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Guilfoyle Run Time: 138 min Rated: 14A (Alberta, Canada), R (self-applied by Netflix in Canada), R (MPAA) for language throughout, some sexual content, graphic nudity and drug content.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers)
Last laugh or last gasp?
In Don't Look Up (2021) director Adam McKay uses the fictional threat of an impending Earth-bound comet impact and reaction to this news as an allegory for climate change. Written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and slated to start filming in 2020 the whole film takes on an additional layer of complexity when viewed through the lens of government, media, industry, and public reaction to the health crisis still swamping the world as the film hit Netflix in December 2021.
The story begins when Michigan State professor of Astronomy Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) confirms the discovery of a massive comet by PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and quickly raises the alarm after determining that the kilometers-wide “planet killer’s” trajectory has a 99.78% certainty of hitting Earth. Mindy and Dibiasky contact NASA alerting Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) at the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The three scientists’ dire warning of an impending extinction event meets resistance and opposition from government, media, and Silicon Valley big tech. Government action is only taken when it is politically expedient; media interest perks up due to Mindy’s handsome looks; and big tech only becomes involved when the looming comet proves to be potentially profitable.
While the threat is similar, director Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is not a retread of Michael Bay’s corny blue-collar rah-rah America action thriller Armageddon (1998) or Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (1998). Rather McKay’s satirical comedy falls somewhere between Stanley Kubrick's highbrow warning of the dangers of nuclear warfare Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Mike Judge’s lowbrow warning of the dangers of overpopulation Idiocracy (2006). McKay is likely best known as the writer/director of comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2204) and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006). But he also directed the more serious film The Big Short (2015) which deftly tackled the absurd and frustrating twists and turns of the 2005 U.S subprime mortgage housing crisis.
Don't Look Up establishes the theme of science vs. faith early in the story. After the comet is confirmed and they are about to plot its trajectory Dr. Mindy asks his graduate students the cheeky semi-rhetorical question “What would Sagan do?” referring to the popular astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan (1934-1996) the way pop evangelicalism referred to Jesus in the slogan “What would Jesus do?” This low-grade pro-science mocking of Christian faith sets the general tone of the starting point for these characters. However, both Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky quickly become disillusioned by the short-sightedness of everything in which they placed their trust: government, the theoretical and applied scientific community, media, even the military. By the end of the film this leaves them open to the possibility of faith and God. Mindy in particular embarks on a kind of epic hero’s journey where he leaves home, fights his battles, and eventually returns home a new man.
Once government, media and big tech become engaged in the problem Mindy is enticed into their service as a scientific advisor and public figure. Repeatedly, he is forced to compromise his faithfulness to science in the hope that the misguided and clueless authorities holding the reins of power and wealth will save humankind from destruction. Away from his family and wife June (Melanie Lynskey) Mindy is tempted into an adulterous affair with Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) the narcissistic co-host of the cable TV morning show “The Daily Rip.” When Mindy hits his personal breaking point, he invokes God and falls out of favour with everyone using him to their personal advantage. In the end, with the comet fast approaching, Mindy returns to his wife and family repentant and seeking forgiveness which his wife gives him. She in turn confesses her own long past infidelity. This is one touching example in the life of the central characters where faith wins out.
Another example is connected to Kate Dibiasky who unexpectedly finds herself in a romance with a slacker skateboarding shoplifter Yule (Timothée Chalamet). He confesses to her that he is an evangelical but asks her not to tell anyone as it would ruin his street cred. At first she thinks this is sweet but by the end of the film, surrounded by Dr. Mindy’s family and their friend Dr. Oglethorpe, her now fiancé Yule offers to pray and to everyone’s surprise prays, “Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for Your grace tonight, despite our pride. Your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for Your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in Your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.” Science was not providing any of this to Dibiasky and Mindy. This heartfelt prayer is contrasted by a prayer offered by Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) the White House Chief of Staff and son of President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) as Big Tech is about to launch a mission to mine the comet for its minerals and resources. He comments that there have been a lot of people talking about praying for people but as he puts it, “There's dope stuff, like material stuff, like sick apartments and watches, and cars, and clothes and sh%t that could all go away and I don't wanna see that stuff go away. So I'm gonna say a prayer for that stuff. Amen.”
Mindy’s and Dibiasky’s faith in science was not undermined by the science itself but by those who failed to act on it out of altruistic principles. Their ideological approach to science was tested and found wanting in the face of power-hungry, greedy, self-interested megalomaniacs. Taking into account when Don't Look Up was conceived and written, President Orlean comes across as a thinly veiled liberal caricature of Donald Trump. Similarly, the Silicon Valley tech guru and CEO of Bash Cellular, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), is sort of amalgam of Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Meta/FaceBook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Writer/ director Adam McKay’s politics and opinions about public private partnerships have become more evident in his work and were particularly highlighted in his film Vice (2018) about former CEO of Halliburton Co and Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney. He’s unmistakably suspicious and critical of public/private partnerships and this is obvious again in Don't Look Up. (Viewers might wonder if McKay’s feelings on this topic extend to the pharmaceutical industry.)
On the surface both President Orlean and Big Tech’s Isherwell are depicted as slippery grifters and profiteers. But with the awkward and off-putting Isherwell McKay seems to hint at something darker. Isherwell is referred to as a “Platinum Eagle-level” donor to President Orlean’s campaign giving him unfettered access to the President. As a maker of mobile phones, he is also thoroughly entrenched in the world of algorithms where life is dissected, evaluated, and manipulated moment by moment for monetary gain and control. He spookily claims the ability to know the hour and method of a person’s death based on their online activity telling Mindy that the astronomer will “die alone.” Early in the film during one of these old-school-Steve-Jobs-Apple-style big tech phone product promotions where he is flanked by an appropriately diverse group of bright-eyed children, Isherwell launches his new BASH Cellular phone called BASH LiiF with the creepy tagline “Life, without the stress of living.” Later, after scuttling a government plan to destroy the comet with an armada of nuclear bombs, Isherwell calls himself Cronos the mythological Greek god of time as he talks to an AI robot that he refers to as his child Primo who will lead the mission to break up the comet to mine its valuable resources. Introducing Primo to Mindy and Orlean, Isherwell says to the robot “Don’t be shy. Come on. You’re gonna be a god in the sky.”
If McKay would ascribe the old adage Hanlon's razor "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” to Orlean, with Isherwell the director seems to imply more than stupidity. At one point Isherwell says, “When these treasures from heaven (referring to the contents of the comet) are claimed, poverty as we know it, social injustice, loss of biodiversity all these multitudes of problems are just gonna become relics of the past and humanity is gonna stride through the Pillars of Boaz and Jachin naked into the glory of a golden age: Interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic existence for the human race!” Walking through “the Pillars of Boaz and Jachin naked into the glory of a golden age” is code language and McKay is banking on attentive members of his audience knowing what the Pillars of Boaz and Jachin are and what they mean. Christians familiar with the account of King Solomon building the Temple in the Old Testament may recognize the Pillars of Boaz and Jachin as two highly decorated cast bronze pillars made by the craftsman Hiram of Tyre placed at the entrance of the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 7:15-22). Free Masons have adopted this biblical account and over the last 300 years or so it has taken on a meaning for them as symbols of the stability and strength of Free Masonry and their “dependence on the superintending guidance of the Great Architect of the Universe, by which alone that strength and stability are secured.” Is McKay suggesting some kind of Big Tech/ secret society connection with Isherwell or is he paying homage to Dr. Strangelove’s (Peter Sellers) inappropriate Nazi eugenic master race comments from Stanley Kubrick's famous film crafting a character who is seemingly there to help but may also have a secret agenda?
In Don’t Look Up Isherwell represents a kind of godless postmillennial materialism where a small group of people firmly believe everything will continue to improve not because of God’s work but because of the promethean work of humanity which gives society’s elites the ability to storm heaven and take their own stab at a golden Garden of Eden. If that seems like a stretch McKay ends the film with cryogenically suspended Isherwell, Orlean, and a group of lobbyists and captains of industry and their chosen few escaping earth on a spaceship to find a new habitable planet in the “Goldilocks zone,” of some distant solar system. There they walk naked, like Adam and Eve, into an untouched paradise—a new Eden—where they could presumably fire up their corporate, capitalistic exploitative machine and spoil a brand new planet for their personal gain. Comedically McKay paints this as hubris, a hopeless attempt to do the impossible. In a credits epilogue scene that could have come straight out of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy the new planet proves just as fallen and dangerous as the one they escaped.
Don’t Look Up is a deeply frustrating film. On the one hand when facing death with his whole family and closest friends Dr. Mindy waxes eloquently: “We really did have everything, didn't we? I mean, when you think about it.” While on the other hand the film is littered with a litany of snide comments and crass blasphemies intended to paint a certain portion of the American population as hopelessly inept. Faith wins out for a handful of people and the whole film reads more like the parable of The Narrow Door where Jesus is asked “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” and Jesus answers, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able,” with the additional warning about self-righteousness unhinged from God “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:22-30). As the film opens, Mindy and Dibiasky would be considered last in line to be part of the kingdom of God more interested in Carl Sagan than Jesus. But in the end, this is flipped on its head. While the world loses its collective mind revelling in sex, drugs, greed, and violence these characters find their minds and souls sitting quietly around a table sharing a prayer and a meal.
Granted, that’s a very generous read of the film’s faith vs. science themes. A more critical eye might ask whether these things and many other details liberally sprinkled throughout are an attempt to cut through the static from the modern media landscape in the hopes of getting noticed and commented upon. Having Ariana Grande play a pop R&B singer in a sub-plot about the vapid nature of celebrity provides real world access to Grande’s social media followers and subscribers garnering potential interest in the film from a younger demographic. Even this review and others like it, on a much smaller scale, provide free publicity for McKay and his investors. Having the Big Tech stand-in Isherwell mention the Pillars of Boaz and Jachin acts as a kind of dog whistle to the internet’s conspiracy minded users who will be tempted to take the bait in a frenzy of confirmation bias and read McKay’s film as an insider’s exposé of “Illuminati” influence on Silicon Valley. This doesn’t mean these ideas and beliefs don’t hold sway for some in the Big Tech community, it just means that McKay may be shrewdly including these ideas to get people talking about his movie just like the inclusion of a hero’s journey that ends with a heartfelt scene of forgiveness between and husband and wife and prayers to God resonates with the Christian demographic. Satire is hard because it is the kind of comedy that doesn’t ask you to take it lightly but rather to take it seriously.
As a whole Don't Look Up is undermined by the pandemic. With President Trump out of office and Covid-19 driving public and private policy and health guidelines, it’s hard to buy into a satirical film intended to convince the public that media, industry, and government have a problem taking science seriously. A big hint that the movie might be a colossal inside joke, a kind of deliberate trolling, is that the Dibiasky comet (named after the character Kate Dibiasky who originally identified it) is a comet and not an asteroid. Comets are mostly water and dust and don’t pose the same kind of threat as a rocky mineral-rich asteroid. It’s hard to believe a film so obsessed with minutia would miss this detail. This contradiction is constantly placed before viewers with special effects making it look like an asteroid despite being called a comet.
The film, however, does a good job of plumbing North American anxiety surrounding death and dying. Interestingly Isherwell’s prediction about how Dr. Mindy would die proves incorrect; he doesn’t die alone. And despite Isherwell’s data and computer models, events don’t entirely unfold as he predicts for himself either. This should be a hint that McKay cares about where viewers place their faith and hope. By his own admission he is terrified of climate change and hopes his film’s message will resonate with viewers. That said, not all viewers will laugh along with this satire; it has some very sharp edges not everyone will appreciate. It will be interesting to see how viewers react to this film in about twenty years providing the people of today are still around in twenty years to see it.
One final note: That Christians expect the return of Christ Jesus at the end of the world is not part of Don’t Look Up. For McKay the end of earth is simply the end of humanity with a 99.78% certainty.