For a film about the end of the world, there was little sense that, indeed, the world was ending. For a film about the end of the world, there was a remarkable sense that, perhaps, the world should just end for its characters, who lie and cheat and grovel and scream — a lot and very loudly, to little effect — and are attacked by panic, ignorance, guilt, loneliness, and viral villainy. Why should they exist? Why should they want to keep existing?
Let's take a step back.
Netflix's next big film after Red Notice, following the same algorithm of lassoing big stars and star directors into a commercial concoction, Don't Look Up is a film with a remarkable existential strain and a funny bone, too. But placed side by side, they dilute each other's potency, making the film play out like a drama without conviction or a comedy without a payoff.
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a PhD student working with Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), has discovered a comet that is rattling towards the Earth, certain to smash it into smithereens, mile-high tidal waves, and extinction. They try to convince President Orlean (Meryl Streep), a pants-suited Trump who has a photo of her with Bill Clinton on her desk, keeping her political proclivity suspect. Her chief of staff, also her son (Jonah Hill) — another nod at Trump — keeps butting in with his frat boy confidence. Kate and Dr. Mindy also try to convince the prime-time excessively sunny television anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) who try "to keep the bad news light". When they tell the anchors about the world ending, one of the anchors jokes about whether the comet will destroy his ex-wife's house. No one believes the scientists, or no one believes them with the urgency they should. The problem is neither did I. The tension keeps getting undercut by the absurdity, till it feels like sketch comedy girded by an existential impulse.
For one, there is no sense of time among the heart and humour, certainly an important element in building tension. At the outset, we are told that the comet will strike in 6 months. In the last scene, the comet strikes. In between, there are what seem like leaps of hours, probably days, but it is only towards the second half, when the comet is actually seen with a naked eye, that we realize in between, there was, in fact, a leap of months. For another, the film's attempt at showing what is at stake — continents, cultures, ecosystems — is so flashy and stitched, it produces awe that these worlds exist, and not fear that they no longer will. Take 2012, another apocalyptic movie, which tried to pull in various continents into its story to give a sense of the global scale of a catastrophe. To make the choppiness worse, characters just walk in and walk out. There is an entirely pointless Ariana Grande cameo and a flat stage performance by her. Timothée Chalamet wades dishevelled into the story, two-thirds of the way. After a massive moment of viral villainy, Kate, a PhD candidate in case you forgot, is now seen billing items at a store. How did she get there? Has she renounced academia? Or is this another case of an end-of-the world, existential fuck-it-all? (Then there is the unasked question about her appearance. What kind of person pays enough attention to get their winged eye-liner symmetric across both their eyes, but does not bother with their uneven bangs that look like a rat had a gnaw at it?)
To pair comedy and tragedy is a gamble. One that chafes at the film's emotional core.
Director Adam McKay's genre-irreverence and restlessness is both refreshing and distracting. Think of the scene from The Big Short, when the film cuts off to Margot Robbie breaking the fourth wall, explaining subprime mortgages to us while frothing in a bubble bath. Here, too, he cuts away from scenes as they are about to finish, and fills moments with montages — some still photos, some videos of animals, people across the world — moves back and forth across time and doesn't let an emotional moment, save for the very last scene, simmer. Random moments that add neither humour nor depth pepper the runtime — like a shot of a security guard standing outside the White House. Intense close-ups cut to frames of feet or hands. Don't ask for a method to the madness. The explanation, as I assume it, makes sense — to, as a viewer, be constantly edging emotionally, and yet to only get to feel something at the very end of the film when McKay allows a scene to complete itself. This kind of logic, though is theatrical, not friendly to streaming, where no one sits through a film without a distraction taking us out of a film's internal logic into that of our immediate worlds before dipping back in. As a result, the film leading to the climax feels emotionally choppy, and that simmering climax feels at odds with the film we had been watching thus far.
In interviews, McKay notes the British artist Ralph Steadman as the mood board for the film's tone. The words he used to describe the artist — "absurdist…there was a bite… large… disfigured" — could have been used to describe this film, too. The comedic stretches are sharp, witty without being polemical, observational without being ethnographic. The scenes in the White House or in the television studio are good examples of his control over the agitated aesthetic. What is going on — characters ask about each other and we ask about the film. But to pair comedy and tragedy is a gamble. One that chafes at the film's emotional core.
The agitation and quick cuts allow for the film — at 2 hours 25 minutes — to not feel longer and more laboured than the runtime suggests, and while the climactic stretches have an emotional turbulence, especially Chalamet saying grace at the dinner table with a bumpkin-like simplicity and intensity, there is no trace of the immediate, visceral agony that dots Steadman's artwork. Instead, there is a lot of flash, which warms us up, but doesn't quite deliver the flash of fire it promised.