There were some things about Don’t Look Up’s handling of its themes that reminded me of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete feature, believe it or not. In the Grindhouse spin-off, Robert DeNiro is a corrupt Senator running for re-election, on a pro border wall/anti-immigrant platform. He presents himself as a strong Texan, but is as fake as it comes. The film is about vengeance in the midst of a grand conspiracy plot, but in a race to its finish, the “vengeance” of its title character grows from an individual to a community. Heavy-handed? Sure. Machete felt like a poor b-movie replicant, being a major letdown from its impressively awesome fake trailer. But its handling of the grander political and human rights themes, however rushed and however thick, somehow were the best parts. When DeNiro gets his comeuppance, the catharsis is real and deserved, at least in movie terms.
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up works in a similar manner. It’s loud, it’s aggressive, and its approach is drastic. But, so are the times we’re living in. A perfectly violent escalation of our entire species as it stands, done up satirically and painfully. The best kind of satire, for me anyway.
The story of a comet on a direct collision course with Earth - a “planet killer” scenario - happening during perhaps the worst mode of our modern political and mass media climate, was crafted by both McKay, the director of comedy classic Anchorman, and David Sirota, publisher of the newsletter/political accountability outlet The Daily Poster (of which I’m a subscriber, full disclosure). With two fairly progressive mindsets, you’d think the film they’d create would be a bit more of an optimistic call to arms, to change our ways.
Indeed, through its brutal honesty and observations, Don’t Look Up does offer some pointed teachable moments, like listening to scientists and not celebrities turned politicians, or maybe lay off the infotainment gas pedal so much. Of course, for any reasonable resident of this world, these things should be obvious. Sometimes though, we miss what’s right in front of our noses, and even the most reasonable of us can be easily fooled.
Movies tend to work well as reflections of a given moment, reflections of where we’ve been and where we’re at and, ultimately, who we are. After all, the motion of a film is a mere illusion - they’re just pictures sped up in sequence. And each picture, each frame, tells a story.
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What is Don’t Look Up telling? Well, it’s yelling most of the time, and at high volume. Leonardo Dicaprio’s astronomer ends up screaming quite a bit, in particular at a crucial turning point in the tale, for quite an extended period of time. Before, it was more out of anxiety. Extreme anxiety (no duh). Dicaprio is at his best when he’s vulnerable, and here his vulnerability is defined by his desperation to get people to just hear the facts and heed the warnings. In a movie of A-listers all giving fine turns - especially Meryl Streep as the Blunder in Chief - Dicaprio is the most resonant. He has to be. The world and all of humanity need him to be.
Is he a Fauci? Eh. Is Streep a Trump or a Palin? Eh. These are mere superficial comparisons. Really, the characters do draw some through lines to real figures, but ultimately are amalgamations of people and principles - of intelligence and hubris. Don’t Look Up excels at using its imagined reel reality as a playground for exercising and flexing some tough to tread representations. It could’ve easily gone too far overboard into straight parody, but instead lands just outside the boat, being a farce and “an inconvenient truth” (so to speak).
Like any good zombie flick, the villains aren’t really the undead, but those living souls trapped together, making poor choices and letting their worst natures come out. Don’t Look Up may share more in common with The Brainwashing of My Dad, a documentary about a man who has watched too much Fox News, than Dr. Strangelove - of which most viewers will likely contrast with.
Don’t bother with such thoughts. Both are about the end of the world. Both are about impotent and incompetent leaders. But both are also of their own eras. Strangelove ended up being pretty timeless though. Don’t Look Up? Maybe eventually.
For now, let’s just sit back and consider our votes, our actions and inaction, and ourselves. Danny Trejo won’t come to cut us down, but Jack from Titanic will have a meltdown before us all. And that could make all of the difference. Could. 4/5