The Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, made waves with its recent appearance on the streaming service. It boasts a high profile, coveted cast with Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, and Jonah Hill, as well as Jennifer Lawrence back from a long hiatus. The film was written and directed by Adam McKay, who’s currently at his best with his writing and directing credits, as well as being a producer on the hit HBO show, Succession. On top of all of that, the movie’s immediate availability on Netflix makes it easily streamable for such a name-dropping cast. Since its release, Don’t Look Up has received very mixed reviews. This isn’t entirely surprising in light of the film’s very mixed tones. Still, no matter how it affected individual viewers, this movie’s message is clear. Don’t Look Up makes this happen with some unusual editing and juxtaposition. These details separate the film from being a truly terrifying disaster movie to walking the line between satire and fear.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
With a message like “the world is ending, and the powers that be are going to let it happen,” it’s pretty surprising that a main criticism of Don’t Look Up is that it’s just one long joke. This particular message rings pretty true and is hard not to acknowledge – especially after the past few years we’ve all had. This movie comes at a vital time, and the delivery of its message is indisputable. But, in many ways, it is one long joke. So, how does a joke become a dread-inducing acknowledgement of what we all know and either do or do not admit?
Don’t Look Up has multiple elements working together to deliver this strong message. Many of these elements are heavy-handed, but something that made its point subtly effective was how the movie juxtaposed naturalism with unusual, fast-paced editing and over-the-top silliness. There are stretches of the film that feel desperately real. It’s not difficult to imagine this scenario really happening, these people really being in power, the warnings being blatantly ignored, and the outcome turning out just as bad as it does in the final scenes. Still, Don’t Look Up is clearly a comedy. The film cuts through the harsh allusions to reality with quick cuts and unusual, comedic, fourth-wall-breaking editing. These elements remove viewers slightly from the fact that, in some ways, they’re watching the ultimate horror movie. The world is destroyed in a terrifying way, and only rich folks resume their lives on an uninhabited (by humans) planet. If the whole film would have felt real and natural, the comedy never would have emerged through the bleakness. It would be like watching Titanic with the knowledge that you’re on a similar ship. And, that kind of movie probably wouldn’t be the easiest thing to sell, nor would it be palatable enough to actually convey its message.
Similarly, the whole movie could have been a goofy comedy, but the point never would’ve been as poignant as it was. Don’t Look Up needed both the comedy and the drama to strike the specific tone it hits. This all culminates perfectly in the last scene (pre-credits) when the main characters are seated around the dinner table. Excellent writing, directing, and acting makes this scene feel relatable. It’s almost painfully real and raw and, frankly, scary. It’s easy to picture yourself and your family and friends trying desperately to cope and maintain calmness and normalcy as the world literally collapses around you. It makes Dr. Mindy’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” hit almost as hard as the comet. The characters have found themselves talking about grinding their own coffee beans, and when faced with the idea of losing everything, it does make the tiny, taken-for-granted details of our daily lives feel lush and lavish and wonderful.
Yet, when it comes time for the comet to hit, the scene is frozen, sparing viewers from seeing too much of the certain, gruesome outcome. For a film that is sometimes comprised of eye-roll-provoking heavy-handedness, it only gives viewers short bursts of reality amidst the noise. The film doesn’t let viewers linger in one place for too long.
Throughout the narrative, there are seemingly out-of-nowhere, fast-paced cuts to animals, nature, and babies crying, among other signs of life all over planet Earth. It reminds viewers that not only will the end of the world destroy Leonardo DiCaprio, movie stars, corrupt politicians, scientists, and us, but it will destroy everything. It acts to achieve something that is fairly challenging to accomplish in a veritable end-of-the-world movie: it actually makes it difficult to know where it’s going. This is reinforced by the pacing’s unpredictability paired with the cuts that give a feeling of randomness. When the comet is moments from hitting the earth, the narrative quickly flips back and forth between people reacting in the many ways people may react in a situation like this (drinking, panicking, throwing caution to the wind) back to the quiet dinner party. It lets moments breathe that one wouldn’t expect – like learning about Yule’s (Timothee Chalamet) religious views and how he got them. And, it speeds through other moments – like the downfall of Peter Isherwell’s (Mark Rylance) plan to save the world while still mining the comet. In an unorthodox and unexpected way, the movie’s pacing allows viewers to spend a little extra time in comforting moments and turn away during the too-harsh realities.
When watching Don’t Look Up, it’s difficult not to find both a bit of catharsis and a bit of dread. In its silliness, the movie still accepts an impossibly morbid fate. It delivers this message in an envelope that may seem chaotic and distracting to some. But, whether you like the movie or not, it manages to get its point across with a uniquely visceral delivery. It’s kind of like a spoonful of strange editing to make the medicine go down. In its gloom and silliness and truthfulness, Don’t Look Up feels like the chance to laugh at an inside joke that folks who have inhabited planet Earth for the past few years can all share.