After a recent screening of Don’t Look Up, the new Netflix original from writer/director Adam McKay, star Leonardo DiCaprio explained why he did this film. DiCaprio has long been an advocate for the environment and, for years, had been looking for a film to underline the message that climate change is killing this world and we need to save it. But how do you make that sad message into a good movie?
Sure, there have been documentaries, even popular ones, but those rarely break through. A big blockbuster action movie could get that idea across too, but it would likely be buried in set pieces and rock ballads. Finally though, the Oscar-winner found his answer in Don’t Look Up, a film that’s funny without being slapstick, dramatic without being melodramatic, and brutally honest about the state of the world. It’s highly unlikely Don’t Look Up will make climate or covid deniers change their tune, but it’s a truly fantastic attempt to do so. And in the end, even if it doesn’t, DiCaprio is part of yet another excellent, smart, entertaining piece of cinema.
It’s co-written and directed by McKay (The Big Short, but also Anchorman and Step Brothers). DiCaprio plays Dr. Randall Mindy, a Michigan State professor who, one night, realizes one of his doctoral students, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) has discovered an asteroid. But not just any asteroid: this one’s headed directly for Earth and is all but guaranteed to wipe all life off the face of the planet. These are the facts and even though they’re cataclysmic to say the least, Randall and Kate know they have to tell the world.
That world includes President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep; her chief of staff and son Jason (Jonah Hill); a fellow scientist named Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan); and many, many others played by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Tyler Perry, Himesh Patel, and more. It’s a cast that, much like DiCaprio’s enthusiasm, shows a near universal trust in the material and its importance. Unfortunately for the characters of Randall and Kate though, the world is less trusting and they’re at first met with almost total skepticism and negligence... just as one might expect our world to react to news of irreversible doom. Slowly but surely though, the message does get out there and Don’t Look Up takes several unexpected and clever twists and turns, ranging from laugh out loud hilarious to completely harrowing and downright bleak.
For a film with such dire subject matter to not just be entertaining and propulsive, but also funny and smart without being preachy, is a minor miracle. Thankfully, the balancing feels almost easy in McKay’s hands. His cast is so beyond talented, their ability to bounce off each other gives everything a very natural feel. Nothing is only funny or only dramatic. It’s all jumbled up in just the right way. Certain scenes are intercut edited with stock footage when there is a stronger message that needs to be conveyed, and as the situation becomes increasingly dire, the McKay dials back the drama to something more comforting. He’s five steps ahead of the audience the entire way and it works wonders.
As for the main characters, Lawrence’s Kate is angriest at the world and becomes the recognizable mirror for the audience, especially as she’s treated increasingly worse. DiCaprio’s Randall is a bit more willing to compromise his beliefs and the choice drives him into some uncomfortably darker places. Plus, as you’d expect from two A-list Oscar-winners, both navigate those arcs with nuance and grace. Every emotion and reaction is right where it needs to be to hold the film, and characters, together. Playing the president and her son, Streep and Hill are basically the comic relief and have some super twisted, silly scenes. History might suggest that’s more in Hill’s wheelhouse but Streep hangs right alongside him, reminding us that she’s probably the best actress there ever was.
Along the way, McKay introduces new characters and situations that get at the idea of the world’s inevitable doom in other ways too. Rylance is a character that’s supposed to be a Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type who thinks money and technology have all the answers. Blanchet and Perry are news hosts who try and make even the sickest news bright and sunny. Patel is a journalist always looking for the sensationalist angle. Grande is a celebrity with zero perspective. And as each of these characters come in and out of Randall and Kate’s story, the audience is left to analyze their own lives and thoughts.
Put all that together and yes, Don’t Look Up is great. But what takes it to a whole other level is its malleable universality. After enduring nearly two years of a deadly global pandemic, watching a movie about people not believing basic science and facts to their own detriment feels all too familiar and relatable. However, McKay wrote Don’t Look Up well before covid-19, about the ever-present horrors of climate change. Then there’s also criticisms of the media, generational disconnects, corporate institutions, and more. That it works on so many levels allows each viewer to engage with it in their own unique way, and that only elevates everything happening on screen.
Don’t Look Up isn’t going to be a movie for everyone. It can be a little preachy, a little awkward, and a little on the nose. But those are mere blips on the radar compared to the big one in the center: that Adam McKay and his incredible cast have made a popcorn movie about climate change that will hopefully have an impact like the one the characters are warning everyone about. It opens in select theaters December 10 and comes to Netflix December 24.
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