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Review: Don't Look Up

Lawrence Mason reviews Adam McKay's star-studded Netflix release, a cautionary tale with the subtlety of a sledgehammer

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If the past year or so has proven anything it’s that people are idiots. Our stupid little monkey brains are hard-wired in such a way that our current social climate, a climate of clickbait, celebrity culture and reality TV, has given way to a deeply dysfunctional community of screen slaves and attention addicts. People are more interested in the latest influencer beef than the impending climate doom, people would rather take horse medicine than wear a small piece of cloth on their face. Our political systems have devolved into a pissing match between two sides who would rather see the other disintegrate than implement any meaningful progress:

This kind of disaffected, old man yells at cloud ranting, runs through the heart of Don’t Look Up. Adam McKay’s latest satirical comedy depicts sociopathic powerful people manipulating the world to line their already bulging pockets. Such description also applies to McKay’s previous two films – The Big Short and Vice. In recent years the director has pivoted from slapstick Will Ferrell comedies to topical political satires, Don’t Look Up being the third in this quasi trilogy. While the previous two were drenched in a very specific style - characterised by fourth-wall breaking moments, stock footage and editing that is due an ADHD diagnosis – Don’t Look Up sees a step back. For some, this may be a welcome change. One of the key criticisms of Vice was the overabundance of this style, with the editing becoming outright manic. While glimpses do break through here and there, overall the style retreats to make way for the more overtly satirical subject matter.

Professor Mindy and PhD candidate Kate, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence respectively, discover a comet hurtling towards Earth with an almost 100 percent chance of wiping out all life as we know it. After a preoccupied president (Meryl Streep) fails to act, the pair embark on a media tour to raise attention and warn the world, hopefully prompting action. It’s through this plot that McKay explores contemporary themes of modern media, government corruption, populism, and the general state of our society. He does so with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As a result, the message of the film is realised in about twenty minutes. The remaining two hours go through the motions, introducing a couple of subplots that go nowhere, until we reach the conclusion with no meaningful character growth, a plot just compelling enough to keep the film engaging, and an overflowing ocean of social commentary. McKay is more concerned with mocking contemporary society than making a good film. I may be in the minority when I say that the film would have benefitted from more of the style that made McKay’s previous films unique.

Despite the lacklustre plot, DiCaprio brings his character to life in a way not many could, building upon the nervous ticks Rick Dalton displays in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Dr Mindy is a bumbling, timid harbinger of doom, awkwardly meandering his way through meetings with the president and TV interviews. As the film unfolds, he becomes more comfortable in front of a camera, this being the only real character development in the film. Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) who is for all intents and purposes the co-lead, starts the film as an outspoken pundit on the incoming apocalypse, who is not afraid to break convention and stand up to those in charge, and ends the film much the same. Jonah Hill provides some much-needed comic relief, but these moments are few and far between, resulting in a comedy -  but one that lacks in laughs.

Apart from DiCaprio and Hill, much of the cast is not given the chance to shine, with writing plain enough that they could’ve been played by anyone. It's this wasted potential that is the main problem with Don’t Look Up. It has all the hallmarks of a good film - a great cast, a competent and increasingly creative director, and a strong message - but it takes these strengths, instead boiling down to a rather plain satire piece that repeatedly bashes you over the head to get its point across. Perhaps the expansive cast or previous success went to his head, it seems as if McKay assumed that it would be a hit; little effort went into the script, relying on an engaging concept but skipping the heavy lifting to make it an effective feature. Much of the film was spent treading water, padding out the runtime and adding to the already saturated mountain of social commentary. If anything, Don’t Look Up is an exercise in how a compelling concept and a talented cast aren’t a golden ticket into an effective feature film.

If Don’t Look Up was a meal it would be Tesco’s finest microwavable tikka masala; a reliable dish ready in no time, yet the ‘finest’ label suggests a level of prestige that simply isn’t there. The film has a solid foundation, and the expansive cast and noteworthy director give the appearance of an effective film. Yet at its root, while not an unpleasant experience, it’s not nearly as ‘gourmet’ as it would appear, leaving a disappointing taste in your mouth.

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