REVIEW: A star-studded ensemble delivers dark humor in the existential satire ‘Don’t Look Up’

Boyce Rucker, Intern

When a global disaster or threat takes place in movies, the common blockbuster shows the U.S. and other countries putting up a valiant effort to avert the crisis in a heroic fashion. However, this depiction is seen as a glorification of patriotism. If we look to reality for comparison, the U.S.’ handling of COVID-19 in 2020 stands out as a prime example. Media frenzy, collective denial and the spread of misinformation became commonplace last year as the virus dealt a devastating blow to the U.S. population. Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” is an on-the-nose satirization of global panic, or the lack thereof, in the face of preventable catastrophe. Though the film lacks subtlety in its social commentary, it’s bolstered by equally comedic and dramatic performances from an ensemble cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

Astronomers Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) discover a meteor that is projected to strike and destroy planet earth in six months’ time. The pair embark on a media tour to warn the world of the coming destruction and encourage the U.S. administration to take action against the meteor before it’s too late. The task is no easy one however, as the two run into countless obstacles, such as the carefree U.S. president (Meryl Streep), a greedy tech company head (Mark Rylance) and a pair of apathetic TV hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett). As those around them downplay or doubt the meteor’s existence, Mindy and Dibiasky must find a way to convince others of the threat’s authenticity and prevent earth’s destruction.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in “Don’t Look Up” (2021). (Adam McKay/Bluegrass Films)

The film adopts the narrative premise of disaster movies and frames it in a realistic, though highly satirical, scope. The film sets up characters that play into the archetypes of those found in disaster films, like the heroic scientists, the sacrificial savior and the president who is willing to take action. However, the film deconstructs these archetypes to highlight the futility in such efforts if humanity were to ever confront a global threat that could cause extinction. While a film like “Independence Day” shows a quick and steadfast reaction from the U.S. President against an alien invasion, this film shows Streep’s President Orlean ignoring scientific data and wanting to keep the information contained after putting it off for some time. This depiction mirrors former President Donald Trump’s alleged downplaying of the COVID-19 virus last year. The Trump comparison is made more apparent by the character’s celebrity status and her politicizing of the meteor, as one would say Trump politicized the virus. The film may seem like just another disaster movie, but in a darkly comedic fashion, it outright exposes the flaws in the U.S.’ handling of natural disasters.

The thing that can give Mindy and Dibiaksy’s warning serious attention is also the same thing that works against them: the media. As humanity is wrapped up in life comforts such as technology, social media and unlimited information, it is not surprising to see why people would not take existential threats more seriously. The film shows that these resources and luxuries do not allow us to consider the consequences of environmental threats or issues such as climate change, pollution and deadly viruses, which continue to be the topic of ongoing issues today. The damaging effects of media and public apathy are rampant throughout the film, but they especially stand out in the news segment scenes. As Mindy and Dibiaski first appear on the news to warn the public of the meteor, they gain media attention, although their warnings are ridiculed. Mindy is recognized and praised for his good looks rather than his scientific rhetoric and Dibiaski’s emotional outburst becomes an overnight meme, instead of an attention-getter for the natural disaster. Mindy’s appraisal and eventual accolade for sexiest man alive, makes it clear that he is a stand-in for chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci. The film develops Mindy however, as we see him delve into infidelity and become emotionally distant under widespread media attention.

Kid Cudi and Ariana Grande in “Don’t Look Up” (2021). (Adam McKay/Bluegrass Films)

While the film is very explicit in its themes, the cast carries strong comedic timing. The film has a bit of the dramatic weight and timeliness found in McKay’s recent films like “The Big Short,” but it strongly leans towards the humor that made him a household name in films like “Anchorman.” To note, these conflicting tones are a bit jarring and make it hard to distinguish comedic moments from serious ones. No matter how big or small each actor’s role is, they add to some of the film’s funniest moments. Out of the film’s supporting cast, Ron Perlman’s Benedict Drask is one of the film’s most memorable characters. The character is a politically incorrect astronaut whose machismo parodies Bruce Willis’ character seen in Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” Perlman’s character is comedy relief, but he also serves as social commentary to outdated and offensive behavior, as one character excuses his colorful remarks by saying he was born in a different time. Other cast members, including Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, Ariana Grande and Jonah Hill also showcase their comedic talent with great distinction.

The cast of “Don’t Look Up” (2021). (Adam McKay/Bluegrass Films)

As the two stars’ appearance in films has been sparse as of late, DiCaprio and Lawrence turn in performances that solidify their characters as the emotional backbone of the film. DiCaprio’s Mindy is unlike any of his previous roles, as he is shy, insecure and timid at times. DiCaprio humanizes this character and makes him into an actual person instead of a stereotypical scientist. Mindy’s interactions with his family and his friendship with Dibiansky make him the emotional centerpiece of the film, as we want to see him succeed despite how much he seems like an unlikely hero. Lawrence as Dibianski is one of the most perfectly casted roles in the film. Lawrence’s natural acting style and down-to-earth qualities help ground the character and make her relatable. Lawrence is seamless in scenes where she transitions from comedy to dramatic acting. The anticipation of DiCaprio and Lawrence co-starring onscreen pays off as they engage in humorous dialogues where they play off each other brilliantly under the most bizarre, and at times tense, circumstances.

It is easy to discount “Don’t Look Up” as ‘2020: The Movie,’ but there is a human story beneath the over-the-top satire. If the film’s premise and themes are too obvious, it is still worth watching for the performances alone. 

“Don’t Look Up” will be released to Netflix worldwide on Dec. 24, 2021.