Don’t Look Up (2021)

Adam McKay | 2hr 25min

After his exhilarating take on the Global Financial Crisis in The Big Short, and his slightly more polarising study of Dick Cheney’s political career in Vice, Adam McKay is tying off what he has labelled his ‘Freakout trilogy’ with his broadest satire yet in Don’t Look Up. What exactly his target is here is difficult to pin down – self-serving politicians, exploitative tech billionaires, nationalistic hero worship of soldiers, and vapid media personalities all come into play, though the catalyst for these send-ups is all-encompassing. The end of the world is on its way, as the discovery of a comet coming to obliterate Earth begs for immediate, cooperative action, particularly from those who hold social and political influence. Astronomists Dr Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky only barely slide into that category, though it is a strong current of blatant ignorance, arrogance, and nationalism which they are swimming against. 

Those who were only onboard with The Big Short for its sharp insight and incisiveness may be disappointed with the blunt approach with which McKay approaches his contentious subject matter here. Those who appreciate his irreverent wit and zippy, fast-paced editing as a means of crafting an entirely different kind of statement will still find value in Don’t Look Up, even if it is troubling in its formal inconsistencies. His efforts to break past the polished, conventional aesthetic on display to let his more familiar documentary style breathe are largely successful in his handheld camera, voiceovers, and comically harsh cuts away from intense scenes mid-conversation, though some oddly placed jump cuts and cutaways don’t fare so well, and neither does one strangely isolated fourth wall break. The flashing of some text over a freeze frame early on to inform us that the Planetary Defense Coordination Office is indeed a real organisation within NASA is the sort of self-aware, playful gag that gave The Big Short and Vice such distinctive humour, and yet given the lack of recurring acknowledgement of the story’s own fictionality from this point on, its insertion simply makes for poor film form.

While keeping all these flaws in mind though, there should still be no hesitation in pointing out McKay’s idiosyncratic and playful use of montages to imbue energy and texture into his work. His editing in Don’t Look Up doesn’t quite touch the heights of Damien Chazelle or Edgar Wright, but the great strength of his stylistic achievement here comes back to those mosaics of insects, cities, animals, babies, temples, riots, sex, planets – everything that encompasses the micro and macro experiences of human life in all its beauty and terror. The sheer velocity with which he flits through these images only ever allows us short, sharp glimpses before snatching them away in an instant, keeping us from appreciating the scope of humanity beyond its overwhelming transience. It is only in the weighty moment which this film eventually winds towards that he slows his footage right down to a snail’s pace, expanding milliseconds out to what seems like an eternity, and finally letting the humanity of the piece linger as each central character discovers the value in their fleeting lives.

An epic scope of subjects reduced to fleeting images in montages – riots, animals, babies, religion, Earth, daily commutes, here and then gone again in an instant.

Certainly McKay’s star-studded cast is yet another characteristic stamp of his that turns up here, and this too pays off on multiple levels. For Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, the gravity of the situation is fully realised in angry outbursts, panic attacks, and their characters’ eventual despairing turns to hedonism, keeping the centre of the film grounded as almost every other plot thread spins off in wild directions. In smaller parts, McKay does well to keep casting big names in amusingly appropriate roles – Ariana Grande as a parody of the kind of superficial pop star the world believes her to be, as well as an especially gruff Ron Perlman playing a grim-faced Colonel who is more than willing to unnecessarily sacrifice his life for his country. The satirical parallels are often all too plain, especially when it comes to Meryl Streep’s self-serving Trumpian President, and yet McKay has no pretensions about his style of low-brow humour. Don’t Look Up is an act of political catharsis more than anything else – provocative, contemptuous, and hilariously bleak from start to finish.

Perhaps the film’s single greatest shot, caught in devastating slow-motion as the end nears.

Don’t Look Up is currently streaming on Netflix.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Look Up (2021)”

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