In 2018, I defended director Adam McKay’s mid-credits scene in Vice. In the scene teenage girls are disinterested in politics and more interested in the next Fast & Furious movie. While other moviegoers found this hypocritical and condescending from McKay, I empathized with his feelings that a disengaged populace is bound to keep repeating its mistakes, and that the election of Donald Trump was clearly why the filmmaker chose to make Vice—as both a condemnation and as a warning. Well, it turns out I was wrong, and McKay just likes feeling holier-than-thou than his audience as if he’s the only person that’s read a newspaper or opened a book. His latest film, Don’t Look Up, makes all of its points about America’s ills—our politics, our media, our capitalist overlords, and our identities—within the first 20 minutes and then keeps going for another 125 minutes. If you somehow weren’t aware that our polarization and capitalist interests makes us unable to solve any problems, then McKay is happy to beat you over the head with that simplistic observation.
Astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and doctoral student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) have discovered that a comet is heading straight for Earth and will destroy our planet in about six months. Unfortunately, in our media-saturated landscape, spreading that information out to the masses and getting the Trump-like President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her idiot son/chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill) to respect the gravity of the situation is next to impossible. After Orlean decides to cover up the comet’s arrival due to the midterms, Mindy, Dibiaksi, and fellow scientist Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) take their revelations to the press, but still can’t break through. Even when Orlean’s interests shift and she decides to deflect the comet, her plans are interrupted by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), who wants to mine the comet for its valuable resources.
While the clear metaphor here is for climate change, you could also apply the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is that in a polarized society like ours, we’ve reached an epistemological crisis where scientific facts simply don’t command our respect, actions, or even our undivided attention. We’d like to believe we’re rational creatures despite all evidence to the contrary, but in the face of certain doom, we’ll simply retreat into facile entertainment (represented by the celebrity couple Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi)), entertainment masquerading as news programming (represented by anchors played by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett), social media, and all other forms of entertainment that McKay clearly despises but feels like is the only way we’re going to pay attention to what’s important.
That strategy worked for McKay in 2015’s The Big Short because financial concepts are complicated. The average person doesn’t know what a credit default swap is or why they keep hearing “sub-prime mortgage,” and part of the way the financial industry is able to leverage its power is by making people feel like they’re too dumb to participate. Vice doesn’t work as well, but it still has some lessons to teach like the importance of the Unitary Executive theory and how there’s a direct line from the George W. Bush administration to the Trump administration. Still, you can see McKay’s frustration with the American populace seeping through in Vice, and now it’s at a full primal scream in Don’t Look Up.
The problem is that McKay’s scream has nothing to add to the conversation that we don’t already know. We’re all living through the same pandemic as he is. Everyone sees how users on social media take sides over the efficacy of vaccines. McKay’s fatalism isn’t wrong; it’s just obvious and condescending. Yes, we’re polarized because of a confluence of political goals, capitalist goals, and a news-as-entertainment apparatus compounded by social media, but is the layperson really unaware that this is happening? Or to go one step further, does McKay think that this film can convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with him? Don’t Look Up is not a sneak attack, but an angry screed, and no one wants to be lectured to for two and a half hours on a topic they already understand. McKay’s major frustration seems to be that no one is behaving rationally without really grasping a firm understanding of identity politics. Yes, media and politics can further polarization, but in a film so devoid of empathy, McKay has no hope of reaching anyone beyond those who already agree with him.
McKay’s conclusion about his angry scream of a film is, “Well, at least I tried,” but Don’t Look Up isn’t much of an effort. It’s not much of an effort to make a basic, tired observation and not add anything we don’t already know. It’s not much of an effort to make a film packed with well-meaning famous people and get Netflix to pay for it. It’s not much of an effort to make a film where almost every single character is inept or corrupt but then intercut it with random “life” images to try and also make the case that we’re worth saving (the editing, in particular, is atrocious as every jump cut and cutaway screams “Get it?!” to the action happening in the scene).
All that’s left is a film that feels overwhelmingly smug. It’s the commenter who jumps into a conversation and says, “Why are we not talking about this,” and yet McKay answers his own question—we’re not talking about it because we’re not powerful enough to avert disaster. Don’t Look Up is not a cautionary tale but rather a fatalistic refrain we’ve heard countless times before. It doesn’t have a single original insight and it’s too blithely contemptuous of everyone and everything to remember to tell a good joke. It’s an unrelentingly tedious experience where I agree with all of McKay’s points and find the manner in which he chooses to make them absolutely insufferable.
Don’t Look Up opens in theaters on December 10th and arrives on Netflix on December 24th.
KEEP READING: Why Adam McKay’s Comedies and Dramas Are More Similar Than You Think