December 27, 2021 - 7:00am

Adam McKay used to be one of America’s finest satirists. He won several Oscar nominations for his darkly comic The Big Short about the 2008 Great Recession and excoriating portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice, which were both powerful critiques of how ordinary Americans can suffer from elite crises.

The shift has become all too familiar, but his latest film Don’t Look Up (a heavy-handed attempt at raising awareness about climate change) goes long on activism and short on satire. The film’s laundry-list of targets is reduced to half-baked caricatures that are all too rarely relieved by moments of genuine humour. 

The most obvious example is the premise itself: an incoming comet due to hit Earth in six months will be an extinction-level event, but two astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) cannot convince anyone in the thinking class — the president, a Big Tech CEO, the media — to take the threat seriously. Yet what begins as a seemingly futile attempt to get people to listen assumes a political character as it becomes clearer in the second half who McKay’s main target is: you guessed it, it’s the science-denying Right. 

This is best captured by the film’s eponymous title, in which DiCaprio pleads with the public to ‘just look up’ [at the sky], a statement that is immediately inverted by Right-wing president Meryl Streep, who tells her followers on the campaign trail: “don’t look up”. Her supporters — or  “dumb rednecks” as her son and incompetent chief of staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) describes them — all yip with delight at this ‘let’s go Brandon’ style chant. And in case the Trump parallels weren’t apparent, the point is fully rammed home when Hill tells the base:

There’s three types of Americans. There are: you, the working class, us the cool rich, and then ‘them’. I’m sorry but we need them because you build us up to fight them
 do you understand?
- Jason Orlean

Particularly hard to stomach are the moments in the film in which DiCaprio turns into a Fauci-like celebrity-scientist, whose earnest warnings about the planet’s impending doom are met with derision by the Alex Jones-like conspiracists and comet-denying Republicans.

These overtly political scenes bear the fingerprints of McKay’s co-writer David Sirota, a former Bernie Sanders advisor, but that is not to say the film is not a complete dud. Some of the critiques of celebrity culture and social media ring true, showing how a serious message can be memeified and watered down to the point of meaninglessness; there is also a somewhat amusing (if a little overdone) portrayal of an all-powerful Big Tech CEO who, though resembling an extraterrestrial Tim Cook, is clearly an Elon Musk reference.

But the film is ruined by how nakedly it serves its agenda — right down to the unhappy ending in which (spoiler alert), the comet hits Earth. McKay says he did this because he wants “people to see a movie that ends where people don’t work to get the happy ending — hopefully some people will have a reaction to that.” Thanks, Adam.

There is much that is worthy of satire about our complex times. But another catastrophist film about our impending doom and the bone-headed Right wingers who refuse to admit it is not it.


is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.

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