For a goofy satire about a comet destroying the planet, Don’t Look Up sure takes you on an emotional journey. The film — helmed by writer and director Adam McKay, best-known for movies like Step Brothers and Anchorman — starts out hilarious, with big-name stars trading one-liners amid an impending apocalypse. But over its lengthy runtime, it slowly morphs into something else. Laughs give way to anger, frustration, and ultimately a kind of desperate hope. It’s a trajectory that serves as an eerie mirror to the last two years of pandemic life — just don’t go in expecting lighthearted fun.
Don’t Look Up doesn’t waste any time getting going. It starts out with a pair of Michigan State astronomers, Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate (Jennifer Lawrence), discovering a massive comet in the sky that’s somewhere between five and 10 kilometers wide. But the excitement of discovery quickly turns to dread, as the pair realize that it’s on a collision course with Earth, and it will cause an extinction-level event in around six months. They rush to the White House to inform the president, played by Meryl Streep, only to be left waiting for hours as she deals with a much more pressing dilemma involving nude models. What follows is a delightfully goofy exchange, where the president and her chief of staff (Jonah Hill) who is also her self-absorbed son, debate the political ramifications of revealing that everyone is about to die ahead of midterms. “The timing, it’s just atrocious,” the president tells them, while noting that she’ll have her own people — from an Ivy League school, of course — assess things.
It would all be absurd if it didn’t feel so close to reality. What should be the only thing that matters to everyone on the planet — finding a way to avoid the destruction of all life — gets drowned out by election season and, later, a celebrity breakup. Early on, this contrast is played up for laughs; the astronomers struggle to get their message across because no one wants to hear bad news. They go on a talk show where they’re told to keep things light. When Kate (Lawrence) explodes in frustration and tells the hosts that everyone is going to die, she becomes a meme.
The absurdism that mirrors our own reality a little too neatly is helped along by a tremendous cast. This movie is stacked with talent. I could watch Streep and Hill banter all day long, and Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi are perfectly cast as the on again, off again pop star power couple. Meanwhile, Lawrence does an amazing job of channeling the anger I know I’d be feeling in her position. Other actors do great work with smaller-but-vital roles; Timothée Chalamet as a painfully earnest Twitch streamer / skate punk, Ron Perlman as a definitely racist war hero. Everyone brings it.
But slowly that good humor gives way and Don’t Look Up gets uncomfortably real. Once the message gets out there, it becomes polarizing. Randall (DiCaprio) turns into a social media star, a hunky scientist who is the face of the government’s constantly shifting plan to try to deflect the comet, while Kate becomes a pariah because of her realist attitude. A chunk of space rock that will eviscerate life on Earth ends up creating political divides. Some are terrified, others don’t believe it’s even real. While working class voters turn hopeful about the jobs the comet will provide, an evil tech mogul salivates at all of the rare Earth metals it contains. At one point Randall is forced to ask: what’s the point of trillions of dollars if we’re all dead? He’s laughed out of the room.
It’s infuriating watching the population argue instead of work together to ensure their literal survival. Sadly, little of the movie seems far-fetched given… well, the past two years on the real planet Earth. We’ve all seen the divides that come from a true existential crisis during the pandemic, and Don’t Look Up is an uncanny reflection of that reality. You could call aspects of it goofy or unrealistic, but then again many of us spent the early days of the pandemic learning to bake bread while watching Tiger King. Don’t Look Up exaggerates a bit, but it’s not too far off the mark.
It stretches on perhaps a little too long — the movie clocks in at nearly two and a half hours — but the journey Don’t Look Up takes viewers on is mesmerizing. I went from laughing at the absurdity of a military general scamming some astronomers out of $20 to being genuinely mad at everyone not only ignoring the obvious but, in some cases, rooting for the damn comet. Toward the end, when the collision becomes impossible to ignore, I just felt bad for everyone involved. Don’t Look Up has a largely dismal outlook on humanity, but it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. (You should definitely stick around for the credits where it wraps back around to being hilarious.)
I’m not sure if the film made me realize anything new about myself or life during the pandemic, but it was certainly cathartic to see it all play out in such dramatic fashion.
Don’t Look Up is coming to select theaters on December 10th, before hitting Netflix on December 24th.