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Opinion | What the critics of “Don’t Look Up” don’t get about America in 2021

Judging by the reaction to Netflix’s Christmas Eve blockbuster “Don’t Look Up,” a lot of film critics would prefer their apocalyptic satires be delivered with more subtlety than an asteroid hitting Earth. The film has a 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, classifying it as rotten.

“Don’t Look Up is a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor,” David Fear of Rolling Stone complained. The film’s ideas are “squandered in a slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays,” Joe Morgenstern opined at The Wall Street Journal.

Judging by the reaction to Netflix’s Christmas Eve blockbuster “Don’t Look Up,” a lot of film critics would prefer their apocalyptic satires be delivered with more subtlety.

It’s true that the latest star-studded opus from Adam McKay doesn’t have the loopy perfection of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” nor the bleak, escalating wit of Armando Iannucci’s “Avenue 5.” It’s not even the best asteroid-as-climate-change metaphor of the year (that would be Claire Holroyde’s novel “The Effort.”) But as we face multiple, interlocking, preventable apocalypses of human foolishness and cruelty, there’s something to be said for art that is prepared to just scream at you in open, helpless panic.

(Spoilers ahead.)

“Don’t Look Up” starts when astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a giant new comet. Her professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) calculates the trajectory and discovers to his horror that the Mt. Everest-size object is going to hit Earth in six months, destroying all life. The two panicked scientists then attempt to warn President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and the public. But the first is focused on her various sex scandals and the upcoming primary, while the second is distracted by viral stories like the breakup of pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande). To Kate and Randall’s horror, no one seems to care that the world is ending.

The obvious metaphor here is our inaction on climate change. That’s a parallel McKay emphasizes with some heavy-handed images of lizards, polar bears, hummingbirds and various other lovely creatures who are currently threatened by human-caused global warming just as they’re fictionally threatened by Comet Dibiasky in the movie. But the failed coronavirus response, driven by willful partisan blindness, is equally relevant. McKay underlines that with an equally heavy hand: Extremist politicians lead their followers in chants of “Don’t look up!” as they encourage Americans to literally avert their eyes from the reality hurtling toward them.

David Sirota, one of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former campaign advisers, co-wrote “Don’t Look Up,” so you’d expect it to include some solid blame-the-rich rhetoric. Sure enough, Mark Rylance does a brilliant turn as Peter Isherwell, a Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk-like billionaire cellular titan whose shaky tech utopia smile barely masks his feral and vacuous greed. As a top donor to Orlean’s campaign, Isherwell demands that she try to mine the asteroid for precious metals instead of destroying it. Watching his much-hyped gadgetry fail would be satisfying if it didn’t also seal the fate of everyone on Earth.

You could argue that’s all too obvious and too on the nose. But you could also argue that our current predicaments are so preposterously self-inflicted that they are effectively beyond parody. Last year, then-President Donald Trump wondered on live television whether people could experiment with injecting bleach as a possible coronavirus treatment; in response, some people apparently did ingest bleach, while others like Rush Limbaugh claimed he just never said that. If anything, “Don’t Look Up” pulls its punches, since some in the “Don’t Look Up” crowd do actually look up at the very end and turn on their demagogues. It seems more likely that they’d die blaming their suffering on Jewish space lasers or some such.

But “Don’t Look Up” mostly passes over the layers of bigotry, racism and white identity politics that made leaders like Trump possible. McKay’s venal, corrupt, casually evil world is somehow also effectively post-racial. Scientists Mindy and Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) both try to warn the president. The script makes it clear that Mindy is dismissed in part because he’s a professor at Michigan State University rather than an Ivy League school. But Oglethorpe’s Blackness is never raised or mentioned. McKay is eager to trumpet about every elephant in the room — except that one. But this reticence also highlights just how difficult it is for art to meet a moment so hyperbolically and excruciatingly boneheaded.

Yes, having the president’s bullying chief of staff be her own son is obvious. Yes, the chuckling media talking heads (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) are too grindingly, obnoxiously pleasant. Yes, the film should have been 30 minutes shorter and had two or three fewer endings. It’s not perfect. But at this point, maybe even perfect mockery is too good for us.

“Don’t Look Up” is the big, thick, blunt mass of rock and doom we deserve. Not least because no matter how loud it bellows, we’re still not going to pay attention to it.

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