Debunking the Strawman Campaign of Don’t Look Up

“There’s three types of American people. There are you, the working class, us, the cool rich, and then them. I’m sorry, but we need them. We need them because you build us up to fight them.”

That line is said by Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), the son of the president in Don’t Look Up, a politician cum frat boy who schedules his mollies with cabinet meetings and prays to God to protect his condo from the Rapture. Hill is riffing on his half-improvised part from The Wolf of Wall Street, but this time the jokes feel like adlibs even the first time, which is key to Don’t Look Up’s structural issues. Allegedly relevant political commentary serves as a clothesline – the dirty laundry is everything writer/director Adam McKay found so funny on the set that he “had” to leave it in, inflating a comfortable bubble around the project in the process. After nearly two-and-a-half hours, any imaginary noble ambition devolves into the goal of scoring points of recognition from the half of the audience expected to agree implicitly and points of outrage (which are just as profitable) from the half expected to protest no matter what. The irony of the film is that it exemplifies “us vs them” more than it critiques it.

Don’t Look Up starts as a Roland Emmerich-style disaster thriller whose ticking clock is an asteroid on a collision course with Earth (“it’s what we call a ‘planet-killer’”). Impassioned scientists impersonated by overly disguised celebrities, like they were all pushed into a costume shop and told to come out in five minutes with a sarcastic murder mystery outfit, fight an uphill battle for truth against a world driven by political and corporate interests. The easy solutions of forced unity or technological revelations typical in a film like this never happen because of what McKay’s script can best be credited for – portraying our chilly reality through the chills, a place where people are so over-informed by conflicting sources of information that they often never agree on what should be done about an issue, or even if the issue is an issue. It’s our technological neurosis. Whether the comet represents COVID vaccines, climate change, capitalism, communism, or just modern media discourse as a medium of communication, the film’s central question is not about any of those specific things so much as the question of whether humans can act in the best interests of their civilization without succumbing to political divides.

Despite a tone of cutting relevance, the tactical error in the screenplay is that it relies on marketable divisions as obviously as the humans in the film. It hints at hard truths of modern society while demonstrating them, portraying how often political decisions are motivated by vested interests, partisanship, smear campaigns, and social media discourse while using them to puff itself up and bluff the “opposing team” into providing ammunition for its media marketing barrage. In the process, it occludes discussions of its qualities as cinema as efficiently as real-world pundits disguise conversations of issues with illusions of outrage.

As a result, the political landscape of the film is so detached from any reality outside of Twitter that it seems like a one-party system of succession opposed by an intellectual yet powerless minority – the ultimate fantasy of the uber-Democrat. That isn’t an accident. It’s key to the film’s intellectual bankruptcy that half the audience watches Don’t Look Up and believes it’s a fair and accurate representation of modern politics and the other half feels bullied. Had the film done its job, almost no one would have been pleased with themselves after this film because almost anyone would have been able to see themselves in it in a way that questioned their beliefs rather than confirmed them. The film has no idea that it’s an example of the exact kind of media that keeps the world in the dark, not an alternative to it. Yet it’s not only darkness – it’s darkness that goes to bed thinking it’s a shining light.

At one point, even social media, which could be interpreted as the film’s true villain, becomes pleasingly necessary as Riley (Ariana Grande) adlibs her “Look Up” concert, complete with hash-tagged t-shirts and live-streamed ad revenue. That was a perfect opportunity to make the target partisan audience of a streaming movie look in the mirror. Yet the film portrays it with the energy of a human rights rally, the same lack of irony that Shakira sang about believing in yourself as a gazelle in a sparkly bikini at the end of Zootopia. It sets up a clear example of how truth is commodified on social media platforms into something that cannot be believed as truth because it’s too busy bragging to communicate outside of its bubble. Yet the film by that point has devolved too far into its false dichotomy to notice that its worldview has become as broken as the ones it heckles.

The side of corporate profits is over-parodied by Mark Rylance in a career-low performance, one that seems to think emasculation is an endless pot of comedy gold as well as a physical defect. But he’s just the effeminate attack dog of President Orlean, materialized by Meryl Streep’s swooning un-pleasantries as a mirror universe Trump stand-in complete with embroidered caps, unrecognizable as the award-winning work she has always given. Her character permanently has the look that cats get when you interrupt them from licking themselves. She plays the role not as an actor but as a manifestation of her Twitter handle in a two-hour bit unworthy of a time slot on SNL, much less a two-hour-plus comedy epic.

Meanwhile, her political opposition consists exclusively of well-meaning scientists and pre-emptively justified doomsayers who receive no “flaws” except the struggle to communicate with people who are less intelligent than them, resulting in more one-sided towel-whipping. Professor Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) cheats on his wife only after being corrupted by the influence of the villains so that even his mistakes are more reflective of his opponents, to avoid even the smallest confusion about which side is the home team. Kate’s (Jennifer Lawrence) only trouble is her inability to control her desire to scream the truth to the jerks that suppress it, standing in for all the internet-age correctness addicts who mistake tweeting for advocacy (is she standing in for McKay?).

In these terms, even a stacked cast seems desperate to be taken seriously. Timothée Chalamet swaggers in with hair down to his shoulders and a single face of amused discontent that’s allegedly hip and truthful but looks more like he made an anarchist skater costume from the unsold stock of his failed Etsy store. DiCaprio carries the film by playing it straight, as though he expected a second Oscar (or expected to be denied one for no reason other than the film’s “importance”). Lawrence goes out there for the role but doesn’t risk more than anyone else. Her hair is awkwardly chopped at the brow in micro bangs that are the color of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos; in the reality of the film, she’s meme-worthy, though the performance contains no hint of self-reproach. That confidence at least contains more comedic energy than most of the film (its worst segment is the 45 minutes in the middle when it forgets that she exists). But it’s not even in the same philosophical postal code as self-reflection.

The fleeting highlights are not these excessive personalities but the few performers willing to seem a little more real. They stand out by not trying to. On the sidelines, Melanie Lynskey plays Dr. Mindy’s wife with adorable intensity, like a rabbit who didn’t expect to live this long. Tyler Perry and Kate Blanchett play eerily unfunny Fox News surrogates. Rob Morgan plays NASA’s science advisor admirably straight, and it becomes clear how admirable it is when his character quietly vanishes from the rest of the screenplay as if McKay ran out of reasonable situations for him to contribute to. The names in the film (Mindy, Dibiasky, Evantee, Oglethorpe, Isherwell, Bremmer, Drask, Yule, Chello, Pawketty) are as aggressively unique as those you might find around a fateful table in a one-act student play, a dinner party of alien personalities. Its reality is the theater in its head.

Real social media declared the film “an enormous win,” as one Twitter user wrote, on the basis that everyone was discussing a film about climate change. Its sheer lack of discourse since then, including for its one-year anniversary, as well as its laughable inclusion in the Best Picture category at the second-least-watched Oscars ceremony of the century, testifies to how brightly smear campaigns shine and how quickly they snuff out. The film was marketed on the idea that one-sidedness would cause one side to feel smug and the other to dig their heels in, perpetuating a partisan reaction that the film pretends to criticize for its streaming service’s profits (the film debuted at #1 on Netflix and held the spot till the next big thing, a spot normally reserved for the latest action blockbuster). “If you can’t at least acknowledge [the win],” the same Twitter user continues, “then it’s a safe bet that you’re a character in that film.” That captures the entire premise of Don’t Look Up’s marketing, which made it a trending topic for weeks but a subject of no lasting importance. Its attitude of “like this film or be criticized for disagreeing with its stated intentions” is the whole problem with filming an alleged ode to rationality that never stops for any self-reflection. That Twitter user never once considered that they might also be a character in the film for tweeting like that, and that was the emotional niche that nabbed the film the Oscars buzz while its intellectual validity evaporated in phony puffs.

As a result, the film deflects technical criticism by design since nearly all discussions, including this one, revolve around its intended discourse rather than its cinematic qualities. But there is a film beneath those issues, and it’s one shot passionately by Linus Sandgren, whose work includes First Man and No Time to Die. He’s what gives Don’t Look Up its impression of visual high-mindedness; he keeps it out of the direct-to-streaming gutter. The film’s pacing, edited by Hank Corwin, is breakneck, contentiously. Scenes are often amputated early, seemingly for no reason other than intentional abruptness. New ones pop up with the tempo of a drive-by shooting. At 138 minutes, exhaustion is a valid reaction to going breakneck for that long, with Corwin struggling to impart feelings of significance to near-random imagery with the same position of self-importance that made his montages in The Tree of Life so reflective. His task was daunting, to try and make images of sequin-powered concerts, actors pretending to be comedians, and fluttering bees cohere into one working, techno-neurotic world. His ambition to preserve a feeling of natural beauty is the film’s most honorable since giving the Earth a voice under all the noise was the best way for the film to ascend beyond its political intentions. The result sometimes works while at other times devolves into montages of jaggedly unrelated images like a slideshow of random common-use photos. This year’s White Noise was as zanily intelligent as Don’t Look Up told itself it was, as McKay helped it into its polar bear jammies and tucked it into bed.

Don’t Look Up misses a crucial staple of great satire – an understanding (not necessarily an advocacy) of what drives the opposing view. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort destroyed his life by achieving what society told him to value, but the film also acknowledged the ironic respect that he still gets from those who hold him as an ideal. It gave the film the feeling of an ongoing discussion rather than the cheap urgency of an ultimatum (and as a result, it felt even more cautionary). Don’t Look Up by contrast is as smug as a campaign ad, pushing agreement with its moral imperatives under the threat of being discredited rather than the strength of its rationale. It’s not authentic or reasonable enough to earn that respect, driven home by a cringy post-credits scene that abuses the film’s sci-fi context for a credibility-destroying joke. This ending only exemplifies the problem it already has, which is that it’s more concerned with making fun than making sense.

This comedy premise is a shotgun while great satire is a headshot. But it can get away with it because pieces of the shot were pre-marketed to be treated as direct hits by the audience before the film even started. I went into Don’t Look Up striving not to let any agreement with the film’s premise affect how I assessed it as a work of satire. It’s not possible to do that completely, but Don’t Look Up hoped no one would do it at all. It wants half the audience to defend it dutifully, on principle, and the other half to get mad enough to express their anger in a way that feels like their own undoing; the more they talk, the more they’ll get frustrated with talking. That’s why the film was #1 on Netflix, not for any complex arguments or technical filmmaking, which if present would have sustained it beyond its initial spot in its streaming service’s ad space and won it an Oscar rather than teased it with one. By design, there’s not a single place you can walk in discussions of this film without someone saying that stepping there has already proven you wrong. The film doesn’t have a strawman on its side – it has a field of them. It identifies itself as a voice of reason in a crazy world, but more than once, I couldn’t tell if it was actually the comet in disguise.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Hyperobject Industries/Netflix

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