Hugging the line of limoscene liberalism, “Don’t Look Up” is unabashedly on the nose. It is a malady that plagued director Adam McKay’s last two films, the overrated “The Big Short” and the rudderless “Vice.” In this latest satire, scientists discover a giant comet streaking along a collision course for Earth. The world has six months to prepare, stop it, or something/anything, yet our political and entertainment institutions fritter away that precious time ignoring, denying, and/or commodifying the problem.
The metaphor to our COVID-19 zeitgeist is patently obvious, and McKay tries to bring our cultural dysfunction into sharp relief by projecting its crippling impact EVEN in the face of a celestial body threatening global annihilation. The thing is, that isn’t really a far cry from what we have seen, and continue to see, as we have endeavored to stop or mitigate the ongoing impact of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed millions of lives.
Still, McKay’s serrated wit is suitably searing. When Michigan State University astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his graduate student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), happen upon the comet and its deadly trajectory, they assume the world will hear them and respond with needed dire urgency. Instead, they have to wait two days to see the U.S. president (Meryl Streep, deliciously vamping), who first chooses to decry their discovery until political expediency gives her a reason to change course, sort of. The same goes for the news and social media, who mock the scientists before figuring out ways to monetize the plight, including turning Mindy into its sexy face and Dibiasky into its loony meme.
Entertainers (like a singer played by Ariana Grande) compose self-aggrandizing issue anthems, and political talk shows debate both sides of a decidedly one-sided problem. The biggest influencer, however, is Peter Isherwell (played brilliantly by Mark Rylance), an amalgam who projects the visage of Tim Cook, the self-absorption of Steve Jobs, the mannerisms of Mark Zuckerberg, and the economic amorality of Jeff Bezos. Isherwell is rather ambivalent about the comet until he learns that it is composed of tons of precious minerals. Saving humankind from the comet suddenly takes a backseat to stripmining it.
McKay wants to make the “Dr. Strangelove” of our era, and on that front he fails. The satire remains too grounded to be farcical, and the lessons it imparts feel sadly familiar instead of dramatically jarring. But that does not make them any less true or relevant, and as the most risible responses to the virus outbreak become commonplace and normalized, sometimes it takes sardonic, albeit unnuanced allegory to snap us back to reality.
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