Adam McKay’s latest release, Don’t Look Up, seems to have had an impact – for the last week, Google has showed trending searches about asteroids; their size, their speed, their proximity to Earth, and the likelihood of a collision. That’s because the film revolves around a pair of scientists, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) who discover an asteroid speeding towards our planet. Realising that we only have six months to explode it, deflect it, or prepare for total global catastrophe, they schedule a meeting with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), and news anchors Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). When that proves fruitless, Kate and Randall go viral, as the film expands out into an ensemble cast that includes Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, and others. The stage is set for one of McKay’s smug, snarky, on-the-nose satires, but on the whole, I found this a little better than his usual shtick.
In part, that’s because Don’t Look Up plays as a history of cli-fi, or climate change-inflected science fiction, in American film and media. More specifically, it summarises three discrete stages in the way that Hollywood has figured climate catastrophe over the last thirty years. First, it draws on 90s films like Armageddon and Deep Impact that used the possibility of an asteroid collision to capture our dawning awareness of global warming as a planetary event. Second, it draws on films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 that parlayed the Mayan apocalypse into the emergence of climate change as public discourse. Finally, it draws on a series of 10s films that used climate change to question the future of futurity itself as a cinematic category – most notably Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: Last Day on Earth, which deals with the final hours before a solar storm destroys all life on the planet. This last category of films is especially interested in representing climate as a hyperobject, to use a phrase coined by Timothy Morton – an entity so massive and distributed that it defies individual human agency.
Don’t Look Up does a pretty good job of capturing climate as a hyperobject, folding it into a decent satire about the way that capitalism thrives on the idea of normality above all, business as usual. When Kate and Randall meet the President, she reassures them that she’s become entirely inured to “world is ending” meetings; when they first appear on television, they’re shocked by how quickly news anchors Jack and Brie reduce their data to “debate.” These scenes really capture the ways that people have to look crazy, or act crazy, to challenge the suffocating rhetoric of normality, which in turn leads to the central image of the film – whether to look up at the meteor (as the scientists urge) or to look down (as conservatives urge). Again, this is a decent motif, especially as it develops over the third act of the film. We move from a stand-off between the slogans of “Don’t Look Up” and “Just Look Up” to a middle ground who ask us to reject “virtue-signalling” by looking up and down at the same time. In a way, this last category is the worst and most cynical of the bunch, since they don’t have any conviction of their own, just a centrist willingness to look up or down as circumstances suit.
Nevertheless, this satire has pretty limited staying-power, and quickly becomes a pretext for the film McKay has been trying to make all along – an old-fashioned media satire in the tradition of Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd, The Truman Show and Wag the Dog. This is McKay’s lane, and Don’t Look Up provides his best pivot to it, as the question of the meteor quickly gives way to the only situation he can capture in a convincing way – a media circus around a morbid spectacle – if only because that’s all that his films ultimately are themselves. Interestingly, this leads to his most genuinely self-reflexive moment to date, in the final sequence, when he questions the efficacy of his more standard and generic self-awareness.
Before we get to that point, however, McKay structures the film as a single media-drenched montage sequence, which works perfectly for his clickbaity style. Clocking in at over two hours, this montage film quickly feels like 24-hour news, but with a more viral inanity, as if McKay is assuming, from the outset, that his audience will drift in and out. His tableaux are always pretty shallow, both visually and figuratively, but that works naturally for a television drama, where a more shallow sense of space is less noticeable. Perhaps that’s why McKay repeatedly cuts to feet and shoes at odd junctures, as if trying to convince himself that there’s still a cinematic verticality and depth here, even as every space looks like daytime television.
Within that shallow space, every relationship is marked by media – it’s the connective tissue that links the sprawling ensemble cast. Both the scientists try to break through the media veneer, and both of them are apprehended by the FBI for their troubles, bundled to their cars with bags over their head as if they’re headed for Guantanamo Bay. However, their trajectories differ slightly, even if they eventually end up in the same space. Kate quickly turns into box office poison, like her namesake Kate Hepburn, and only escapes a serious fine for (supposedly) breaching state secrets by agreeing to “a suspension of all public media appearances.” Randall goes the other way, leaving his wife for news anchor Brie, and becoming the main media spokesman for meteor deniers, before rejoining Kate at the end.
Whereas the two scientists try to capture the truth of the meteor outside media, the government tries to turn it into media – quite literally – with the help of a tech guru, played by Mark Rylance. As Peter Isherwell, the CEO of BASH, he informs the President that the comet contains 140 trillion dollars worth of material that is critical for cellphone manufacture. Mining the comet will finally put America in front of China for tech production, and this turns the comed into a salvational object for (and via) social media – right down to the BASH-funded blockbuster, “Total Devastation,” which is scheduled to come out on the day the meteor hits.
This all leads to a pretty sobering ending, as Kate, Randall and their coterie realise that their only choice is not to look up. All they can do is gather at Randall’s house for dinner, as the meteor strikes, the planet is destroyed, and the President flees on a BASH ship purpose-built for this outcome. At this point, McKay’s glibness starts to disintegrate, as the family join for an agnostic prayer, and the ripple of the asteroid collision makes its way across the globe to their dining room walls. You’d think that montage would be the perfect way to capture this process, but instead McKay’s montage starts to break down, splintering into a series of superimposed and frozen images that blur the dining room with the world outside, as if the meteor has already been inside the house, inside each of the characters, from the very start.
The result is more emphatic than a regular ending, and reminded me of the strange visual scheme of Charlie Kaufman’s most recent film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There, as here, the American family home felt violated by a coldness that had been present all along, preventing Kaufman (like McKay) from falling back upon even the most residual or defensive cosiness. Both McKay and Kaufman have built a career on self-referentiality, but Kaufman has been more aware, from the get-go, that this was a form of false consciousness, a buttress against the real that just makes the real more traumatic when it finally breaks free. As a result, the depression that has percolated throughout Kaufman’s career (and is fully-formed by I’m Thinking of Ending Things) arrives belatedly and traumatically at the end of Don’t Look Know.
Similarly, whereas Kaufman’s film resorts to a fantasy tableau in its final stages, McKay just opts for more glibness, and more montage, in a sustained credit sequence, and then a post-credit sequence. But his perkiness now feels rote, devoid of joy, by the numbers – it’s self-referentiality as solipsistic nihilism. It’s also the exact register of the MCU, which perkily reminds us that nothing can really change, that the capitalist ecomomy that fails to save the planet here is the only realistic system for the planet, and that we can’t possibly expect any more from Hollywood than the kind of reheated satire that McKay specialises in serving up. Call it a kind of reckoning, then, for McKay, who can’t see beyond the horizon of his own limitations, but at least registers them now as a reality-principle that’s every bit as complicit in the meteor, and in what the meteor represents, as all the “sheeple” his films are satirising.