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Don't Look Up

Entry updated 11 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2021) Hyperobject Industries, Province of British Columbia Production Services Tax Credit, Bluegrass Films. Directed by Adam McKay. Written by McKay from a story by David Sirota. Cast includes Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Kid Cudi, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ariana Grande, Paul Guilfoyle, Jonah Hill, Robert Joy, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Ron Perlman, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance and Meryl Streep. 138 minutes. Colour.

Don't Look Up was released in December 2021. The action is undated, but seems to be set in a very Near Future imperceptibly distinct from the poisoned water margins of the actual December 2021, with identifiable politicians changed and/or re-gendered to give the Satire free play. The nudzhing cartoonishness of the film, which is always deliberate and at many points alluring, may generate a sense that Don't Look Up's vision of the world is conventional, pantomimic: with various pawn-like characters stepping stagefront whenever a legerdemainic A-list actor peers through their mask. Nor are there shocks of recognition in the unfolding of things: the basic engine of Disaster that drives its plot had become perfectly mundane by 2021: a very large Comet – about the size of the Asteroid that created the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula 65,000,000 years ago, an extinction event for the dinosaurs and very nearly all life – has been detected on collision course with Earth. Impact will be in six months. Unless it is diverted, along lines similar to those melodramatically presented in Armageddon (1998) directed by Michael Bay, it will bring about the End of the World for Homo sapiens. Recognition here has little to do with discovery; it is rather a kind of resignation.

But historical embedding is important all the same. In its rendering of American government's diseased response to threat, Don't Look Up depends on its scenario being entirely in line with the case of what looks plausible at the present time. It is perhaps more a comment on the world circa 2021 than it is upon writer/director McKay's failure to grasp nettles that – as even the first half hour of the film demonstrates – there can be few genuine surprises in Don't Look Up. The point is that there are no surprises in America. What viewers may readily come to understand – it is hard to think those who love the film will have missed this – is that when Don't Look Up seems most gear-loose it is in fact most documentary.

Michigan State grad student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), who discovers the comet, and her slightly underpowered supervisor Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), who accompanies her to Washington to report on their findings, turn out to be disastrously lacking in the media smarts necessary to keep their interlocutors' attention (see Advertising; Media Landscape). They may have persuaded Head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office Teddy Oglethorpe (Morgan) (the PDCO is real) that what they have discovered is demonstrably true and available for peer-review, and he may have gained them an audience with American President Orlean (Streep); but her profound innumeracy, her mephitic contempt for "news" not properly shaped to boost her poll ratings, and her deeper-than-plummet-sounds narcissism guarantee that the two media amateurs will be dismissed. A three-star general in her good books inexplicably charges them twenty bucks for free coffee then departs, rather like a visitor from a late film by Luis Buñuel, perhaps The Phantom of Liberty (1974). Her son Jason Orlean (Hill), who is the Chief of Staff, mocks them in his slobberknocker way, and shows them the door.

After being seen off by the President, who is having problems getting her nude-model porn-star disgraced-sheriff ex-lover nominated to the Supreme Court, Dibiasky and Mindy appear on a morning chat show, The Big RIP, where they are mocked for being downers, though the female presenter Brie Evantee (Blanchett) soon sleeps with Mindy, which threatens to end his family life. The narrative begins to hop and skip. Desperation oozes. We are beginning to suspect that if there were once upon a time a centre that held (see below), that time had passed. The rhetoric of the comity of governance is here seen as literally sickening in its falsity (the immediate response of the sane protagonists of this film to encounters with the American government is to seek a toilet to vomit in). Finally, after precious time has passed, the government authorizes an Armageddon-like mission for the glory of America (foreign governments need not apply), but launch is suddenly terminated when tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Rylance) – Rylance's astonishing performance is widely assumed to be a portrait of Elon Musk with an aroma of Steve Jobs – tells the President that the comet contains hugely lucrative mineral deposits, which can be rescued by his own privatized space force exclusively to profit American business. Sadly, this mission fails and the comet strikes the planet, and life ends (but see below).

The comet, as noted, was a mundane happenstance: unlikely but not impossible. The missions to eliminate it, on the other hand, soon slide brakeless into spoofery, a narrative disjunction which had a dismantling effect on what modest diegetic integrity the film might have been aspiring to, and which may have occasioned some of the negative comments critics have issued. More likely, as Don't Look Up is in the end about nothing if it is not about twenty-first century Politics, critics on the left may have felt that its increasing buffoonery dodged any confrontation with genuine evil, and was badly-scripted to boot (though individual performances, not only Mark Rylance's hallucinatory imposture, were rightly given praise). Critics on the right, contrariwise, may have felt that the film's unmissable parallels between the fictional government's vomitous handling of a film disaster, and a profoundly similar real government's denials of the manifest and deadly avalanche of Climate Change, approached lèse majesté.

In the end Don't Look Up may less argue a case for feeling anguish (contemporary viewers can ignite their own fuel for hurt) than give us a psychic okay to go walkabout in the ruins, and to guffaw, just briefly, at the denialist raree-show, at the goons and gurus destroying the conversation of the world, and the world itself. Though it falls far short of suggesting just how the past decades have thinned us to this pass, this may be no matter. After decades of living in the world, viewers today know the likely script of things to come before they see the film. Almost sixty years of deepening cultural autophagy have passed since the release of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), a Satire on the wilful End of the World which Don't Look Up subtends (and quotes from); and in a myriad ways it was easier to make, now that the penny has dropped, than its great predecessor. Don't Look Up implicitly posits a world in which there is no cultural gravity – no centripetal consensus about the nature of the human world – to fix its satire to; as opposed to the state of actionable crisis that sharpened Kubrick's era (and his aim), there seems to have been nothing McKay had left to lose: you have to laugh, over the top, until you tire. But Don't Look Up was also harder to make, in a world that has become desperate to hear a story that tells it as it is, but offers nothing to hang a story to. When the centre cannot hold, there can be no tragic fall. "Adlai Stevenson"'s failure to curb Dr Strangelove in 1963 is tragic; "Donald Trump"'s failure to curb Mark Rylance's self-driving Isherwell is mere anarchy (not improved by a fatuous post-credits spoof sequence set thousands of years hence in Another Galaxy).

In the closing moments of the genuine action, just before the comet hits, the protagonists and their friends and family reunite and share a final meal. They are all likeable: they are litmus tests of what had remained of real personhood in their world. Even Oglethorpe shows up to share the end of things. Dibiasky's new lover Yule (Chalamet) channels Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) moulding Devils Tower in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as though to tell us there is a light at the end of the tunnel and this is the way. He then utters an unembarrassable prayer. The God he addresses is a Father. In every possible sense, it is an American ending. [JC]


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