Reading Time: 3 minutes

Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s disaster satire in which a pair of astronomers attempt to warn the world of an incoming comet is a critique of short-sighted politicians, greedy tech companies, and an audience-coddling media landscape. It’s about climate change, in other words, a parable about the dangers of ignoring scientists in the face of encroaching calamity. 

It’s also not terribly funny. 

The ingredients are there: Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomer/doctoral candidate, has discovered a massive comet en route to Earth. Humanity has only six months to avert certain doom, and so Kate and her boss Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) journey to the White House to propose an Armageddon-style plan to blow the comet into smaller, non-lethal pieces. Unfortunately for them (and humanity), President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her vapid Chief of Staff/spawn Jason (Jonah Hill) are too wrapped up in scandal to pay them much notice, and the two embark on a disillusioning media tour to warn the people. 

Theoretical hilarity ensues. Soft-spoken, anxiety-afflicted Randall quickly discovers a love for the spotlight, while Kate slowly implodes amidst existential horror and social media cruelty. Kate made the discovery, and so the comet is named after her, and because people are incapable of recognizing the bigger picture, they politely congratulate her about this. 

At 138 minutes, Don’t Look Up’s most glaring drawback is sluggish pacing. Six months is not a lot of time to save the world and/or find some measure of inner peace, but it does offer the filmmakers ample runway to meander through endless subplots and celebrity cameos. It’s the sort of thing Judd Apatow would do, throwing all sorts of tones and material into the mix so there’s something for everyone (Apatow has a producer credit on McKay’s earlier comedies Anchorman and Talladega Nights).

The obvious parallel to Don’t Look Up is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. In that film, a series of misunderstandings result in nuclear annihilation, suggesting that the best and the brightest overseeing our nation’s doomsday devices are neither. In Roger Ebert’s 1994 review, he noted that Dr. Strangelove “took on the enchanted aura of a film that had gotten away with something.” He’s right in more ways than one. Strangelove arrived amidst rising criticisms over the dangers of nuclear proliferation, and, less frequently noted, was released in late January 1964, with President Kennedy’s assassination a little over two months prior and still very fresh in the public memory.

While the bumbling President Muffley isn’t a JFK analogue (Peter Sellers drew inspiration from Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson), the film’s overall dim view of public officials reads much darker in the wake of profound national tragedy. It eschewed the solemnity of its atomic drama peers On the Beach and Fail Safe (the latter released months after Strangelove, to its detriment) in favor of unflinching bleak humor. It did so in about 95 minutes.

Additionally, crucially, Dr. Strangelove was released nearly a decade before Watergate and America’s loss of the Vietnam War, two pivotal events precipitating the American public’s plummeting trust in government institutions. The 1970s would eventually catch up with a slew of paranoia thrillers (The Conversation, The Parallax View). At the time, Dr. Strangelove competed against infinitely cheerier movies like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady for Best Picture.

Compare this to the context Don’t Look Up occupies, a decidedly Trump-era film nearly a year removed from Trump’s presidency. With production delayed by the (still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic, the film was released into theaters on December 10 and available to stream on Netflix by December 24. Streep’s President Orlean, decked out in a red baseball cap as she encourages a crowd of cheering supporters to ignore the celestial crisis, is a pretty obvious spoof of the 45th President. And while we’re still limping through the pandemic and the fallout of its mismanaged early stages, or maybe because of it, the film’s visions of ineffectual public figures are more exhausting than cathartic. 

Releasing the film while Trump was still in office probably wouldn’t have helped much, either. His presidency was accompanied by a cacophony of parodies and winking references, from the steady stream of Saturday Night Live openings to Ted Levine’s “nasty woman” comment in Jurassic World 2. Worse, it lacks the specificity to have any real bite. When the film grinds to a halt so that Hill’s vague Jared Kushner/Eric/Trump Jr. amalgamation can inflict arbitrary cruelty upon weary Kate, as if a social media feed were given human life, the best I can do is grunt in sad recognition. 

Hill’s rambling invective recalls McKay’s earlier absurdist, manchild comedies Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. In recent years he’s drifted toward more irreverent docudramas The Big Short and Vice, films preoccupied with the numbing of the voting public that in their worst moments veer into hectoring. Don’t Look Up shares with those films McKay’s apparent disdain for mainstream media’s aptitude for distraction, abandoning any remaining pretext when Randall has a Chaplin-at-the-end-of-The Great Dictator moment, breaking down on live television as he pleads with the audience to take this (climate change, the pandemic) seriously.

Don’t Look Up contains too much Fail Safe sincerity to fully commit to its Strangeloveian cynicism.

Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....