WWhy, asked the noble ones, don’t the films deal with the big issues of the day? So what happens when you serve them a star-studded, sizable budget, prize-hungry allegory on climate change? you moan.
Don’t Look Up is a self-declared parable intended to edify through comedy. Two astronomers, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio, discover a “planet-annihilating” comet heading for Earth. They try to save the world, only to be met with opportunism in the White House, media frivolity, and everywhere else commercial greed, incompetence, sexism, apathy, and so on, all from luminaries from Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett to Mark Rylance will be directed by Tyler Perry and Ariana Grande.
The right sage was quite bound to dismiss such an exercise as the childish preaching of jet-set Hollywood hypocrites; and indeed, the National Review managed to find both “moronic” and “brain-damagingly unfunny,” while the Wall Street Journal found only “superficial nihilism” in a film “bursting with self-pleasure.” Surprisingly, the progressive camp also lacked this seemingly gift horse. Too “harsh” (Rolling Stone), too “shrill” (Parade) or too “bombastic” (The Observer) was their advocacy of their favorite cause. To put it another way, The New York Times, RogerEbert.com, and, now, the Guardian, all agreed that the film’s handling of its vital message was just too damn “obvious.”
Nonetheless, in the month following its release, Netflix subscribers spent 360 million hours watching it, making its debut the second-biggest in the streamer’s history. Were these untrained couch potatoes just too easy to please? Or maybe they felt an accomplishment that their betters had somehow missed?
You can see why those with preconceived notions about the film’s subject might feel that it’s parroting the obvious. Well-known villains, from self-serving politicians to television airheads and billionaire egomaniacs, commit well-known outrages. If you’re tired of blaming your own kind for our woes, or bored with blaming them, you might back off from the start. Yet while the film’s situations may be absurd, its characters aren’t the two-dimensional ciphers you might expect.
Streep’s Potus is the central villain of the story. For them, the medium-term beast is larger than an extinction-level event. Still, she’s no far-fetched ogre: in fact, she’s more credible than Donald Trump. Her selfishness smacks of innocence rather than sinfulness, and in the end she’s more endearing than repulsive. When cornered, she shocks with unexpected honesty. This kindness towards animals should prove their Achilles heel seems quite fitting.
Blanchett’s cable news host is no less multifaceted, a master of banality on air, but elsewhere he conveys depth with little more than a twitch of an eyebrow. Rylance’s big tech guru is not a plutocrat but a mystic who is a genius in his own right. Meanwhile, DiCaprio and Lawrence’s scientists aren’t heroic role models.
So the authors of our decline turn out to be dedicated, understandable human beings rather than monsters. Additionally, the film’s rogues gallery includes a villain who is left out all too often. It’s us. Ultimately it turns out that disaster requires the inattention, triviality, ignorance, idiocy and tribalism of the people, not just the depravity of the privileged few they elect, enrich and idolize. In the end, the fate of the world will be decided on the streets, by ordinary people who don’t look up.
The implication of all this is that what is truly bringing down humanity is not the wickedness of rulers or the rottenness of institutions; it is the innate qualities that make humanity human. Is that obvious? There may be some. However, many prefer to blame the enemy images they already anathematize, be they the politicians of the other side, capitalism, idiocy or original sin. While one or two of these whipping boys may have sole responsibility, not looking up invites us all to reconsider our thinking.
Before settling on comedy as a vehicle, writer/director Adam McKay considered other ways to approach his subject. He made the right choice. It’s the humor that has given his message its peculiar knowing edge. The search for gags led him away from boring polemics and into the human heart. There he found the Philosopher’s Stone, entertainment that not only really enlightens but also wows the crowd.
This absolutely rare feat was accomplished on the basis of a scintillating script, acting worthy of its stunning reward, skillful editing, meticulous design and an inspired score. Still, it’s not what excites academy voters. Unfortunately, Don’t Look Up will not be able to get their hands on this Best Picture statuette. But it should.