Don’t Look Up
Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep. Rotten Tomatoes 55%. 138 minutes.
Spoiler alert! This article contains numerous details about the film Don’t Look Up, if you are intending to watch it, you might want to come back later.
The best thing you can say about Adam McKay’s recent all-star film Don’t Look Up is that it is very well named.
Two scientists, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD student Kate Dibiasky (an impressive Jennifer Lawrence), discover a giant comet on a crash course with earth. The danger is such that Kate ends up shouting on morning television: “we’re all 100% for sure going to f#@king die!”
And yet, the plot somehow falls flat because, comet or no comet, we kind of already knew that. The very nature of life means that all of us face our own personal extinction event.
Just minutes before the comet’s impact, Kate’s ex-boyfriend publishes an article entitled: “Pray, Have Sex or Murder: What’s the Best Way to Greet the End of the World?” In many ways this title sums up the film’s focus. Created as a satire of the world’s perceived indifference to climate change, the film accidentally becomes an allegory for the myriad of ways in which people respond to the drama of mortal life.
It’s as if McKay had set out to create an eco-version of Wag the Dog and ended up with a millennial version of Neville Shute’s On The Beach.
Throughout the film we perceive a myriad of responses to mortality. Many deny the existence of the comet. Others riot and loot. Others seek to create their own security by digging shelters — shovels suddenly become a hot commodity. Perhaps the most iconic line comes when the two TV hosts, Jack and Brie, sit together in the final hours before impact. They are alone in a devastated Manhattan bar. Both look dishevelled.
Jack says: “Wanna have sex… or pray? And Brie responds: “Honestly I’d rather just drink and talk shit about people.” It’s a very recognisable lifestyle.
The film suggests that family is the only sane answer to the question of what life is about? And although there is not a single successful, faithful relationship in the story, most characters think about their families in the final moments.
Indeed, we end with Randall at home with his family, along with Kate and her new fiancé Yule. They opt for a nice family dinner of salmon and easy conversation. As the house is literally torn apart around them, we hear them talking about which apple-pie tastes the best — store bought or home-made.
We are left with the feeling that grim stoicism in the face of death is the only plausible way of life. Be with people you love, be pleasant, be grateful for the small things, and defiantly ignore the reality of death. President Orlean (Merryl Streep) seems to sum up the wisdom of the age: “The point is you can’t go around telling people there’s a 100% chance they will die.”
Can this really be the 21st Century conception of the good life?
What is interesting is that the slow-motion images of these final conversations on earth render each character cartoonishly unreal. Our mortality is such a normal part of our life that to ignore it is to effectively ignore the reality of our own being and the ultimate questions which it inspires.
It is this which makes the film so insipid — the best answer it can come up with in response to the drama of life is involvement in science-led political activism to make life longer or more secure. We see the characters organising marches, merchandise, slogans and even pop concerts — all of which become increasingly incoherent in the face of the flaming comet now visible in the night sky.
In an interview with Variety Magazine, writer/director Adam McKay admitted that Faith was something of an afterthought in the film. His co-producer Ron Suskind asked ‘“Where’s faith in this movie? “And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re right. You’re right!’”’ The result was the late inclusion of Yule, a somewhat curious believing Christian, who prays with Randall and his family moments before final impact.
What makes it curious is that although prayer is often mentioned as an option in the face of mortality, and we see people of various religions at prayer, there is not a single question or comment regarding the possibility of an afterlife by any character in the film. Even Yule’s prayer asks only for strength during the final moments. There is no sense of God being capable of more.
The main characters join hands while Yule asks for God to “soothe our fears in these dark times”. This verb is interesting because it was earlier used by the tech billionaire Peter Isherwell. “All of my work has been driven by the want of a friend to understand me and soothe me.” So he created an app for that. In essence, the film reduces God and prayer to another convenient app which can soothe, calm or comfort. It’s just one more option for the consumer to choose. As Rina (Ariana Grande) puts it in the final stanza of her song at the activist pop concert:
Celebrate, or cry or pray …
Whatever it takes to get you through the mess that we made!
Cause, tomorrow may never come!
Despite satirising anti-science conspiracy theorists as the “Don’t Look Up” movement, the film’s fear of anything which might suggest transcendence suggests that its creators are equally averse to looking up.
Indeed, the film even riffs on its own inability to answer the fundamental questions of existence. When Randall finally abandons his celebrity status and speaks the truth on morning television he shouts:
…what the hell happened to us? mean, honest to God. What have we done to ourselves? And how do we fix it? I don’t know…if there’s one thing that I pray you all remember from anything I’ve said it’s this: We must, every one of us, immediately start to–”
But he never gets to finish that sentence. Seconds later he’s sitting in a car with his head in a bag. It’s a fitting analogy for a film that constantly baulks at the challenge of a meaningful response to the reality of a common death.
We’re left wondering, are we really just consumers? To quote the film, do we “just run from pain and towards pleasure”? Do we only “take a stand when it’s safe but ultimately…choose the path life conveniently provides, like a field mouse”? Clearly we are more than that. The film satirises the poverty of this view. But at the same time, it carefully avoids anything that could even look like a meaningful response to our desire for something more.
It is quite ironic that the film premiered on Australian Netflix on Christmas Eve. The night when another great light appeared in the sky, heralding the answers to questions that so clearly terrify the makers of the film. On that night shepherds and Kings looked up and were drawn into a dialogue with a God who became one of us.
As Lumen Gentium, one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council, put it so clearly: “Christ is the light of the nations”. It is he who provides meaning, who answers those questions. It is he who solves the riddle of mortal life by bringing salvation to all.
But for a culture which has abandoned Christ there is only coffee and apple pie with nice people. And if that’s all there is, it’s hard not to cheer for the comet.