Movies love to menace Earth. It’s human nature. In some of the most plausible doomsday flicks — “Meteor,” “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” — a big space rock threatens annihilation. Usually, if not always happily, someone finally comes to the rescue, although that isn’t the case in the 1951 film “When Worlds Collide.” Before it makes good on its title, this shocker rockets survivalists on an ark to colonize another planet, which is more or less what Elon Musk has talked about with Space X.
Director Adam McKay is not in the mood for nihilistic flights of fancy. Our planet is too dear and its future too terrifying, as the accelerated pace of species extinction and global deforestation underscore. But humanity isn’t interested in saving Earth, never mind itself, as the recent climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, reminded us. We’re too numb, dumb, powerless and indifferent, too busy fighting trivial battles. So McKay has made “Don’t Look Up,” a very angry, deeply anguished comedy freak-out about how we are blowing it, hurtling toward oblivion. He has sweetened the bummer setup with plenty of yuks — good, bad, indifferent — but if you weep, it may not be from laughing.
Maybe bring hankies, although don’t look for speeches about climate change and global warming. Rather than directly confronting the existential horror of our environmental catastrophe, McKay has taken an allegorical approach in “Don’t Look Up” with a world-destroying comet. Oh, sure, on its website, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (yes, it’s real) isn’t worried about near-Earth objects, as they’re called: “No known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth for the next 100 years.” Whew. But no matter. The planet is on fire, and so is McKay, who has embraced his inner Roland Emmerich (“2012”) with a fury by lobbing a great big joke at us.
That joke is definitely on us or soon will be in “Don’t Look Up,” which follows a studiously curated ragtag collection of scientists, politicians, military types, journalists and miscellaneous others who face — or don’t — the threat of a rapidly approaching comet. “I heard there’s an asteroid or a comet or something that you don’t like the looks of,” a visibly bored president of the United States (Meryl Streep) says to some anxious scientists who have been granted an imperial audience. The scientists really don’t like what they’ve seen but the president has other things on her mind, including upcoming elections and the friendly perv she is trying to get placed on the Supreme Court.
Packed with big names, many locations and ambitiously staged set pieces (and a lot of giddily terrible hairdos), the movie, streaming now on Netflix, is a busy, boisterous mixed bag, and whether you laugh or not, you may still grit your teeth. The story opens in an observatory where Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a graduate student, first spots the comet. Kate’s giddiness over her discovery soon turns to fear when her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (a terrific Leonardo DiCaprio), crunches some numbers and realizes the worst. Together, they pass along the bad news. Enter NASA (Rob Morgan), the military (Paul Guilfoyle) and the White House, which is where the movie’s breeziness takes a turn for the ominous.
Also for the frantic, strident and obvious. McKay’s touch here is considerably blunter and less productive than it has been in a while. In his two previous movies — “The Big Short” and “Vice” — he blended comedic and dramatic modes to fascinating effect. He experimented with tone and pitch, and played up and down different scales, from the deadly serious to the outrageously silly. It didn’t always work. It proved easier to get into McKay’s groove when you laughed at, say, Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages while she’s taking a bubble bath in “The Big Short” than when you watched Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney discussing another American war in “Vice.”
The stakes are higher still in “Don’t Look Up,” which grows progressively more frenetic and wobbly as the inevitability of the catastrophe is finally grasped by even the most ridiculous of the movie’s buffoon-rich cast of characters. One problem is that some of McKay’s biggest targets here — specifically in politics and infotainment — have already reached maximum self-parody or tragedy (or both). What is left to satirically skewer when facts are derided as opinion, flat Earthers attend annual conferences and conspiracy theory movements such as QAnon have become powerful political forces?
Even so, McKay keeps swinging hard and fast, and from the start, establishes a sense of visceral urgency with loose, agitated camerawork and brisk editing that fits the ticking-bomb story. He slings zingers and stages bits of comic business, making fine use of funny faces, jumping eyebrows, slow burns and double takes. Part ethnographer, part sociologist, he is especially good at mining the funny-ha-ha, funny-weird spaces in between people. But he’s not always in control of his material, including some cheap shots that slide into witless sexism. Presidential vanity is always a fair target, but too many of the digs directed at Streep’s character play into gender stereotypes.
Streep is a great deal of fun to watch when she’s not unintentionally making you cringe, and Lawrence gives the movie a steady emotional pulse even at its most frantic. McKay’s work with DiCaprio is particularly memorable, partly because Mindy’s trajectory — from honest, concerned scientist to glib, showboating celebrity — strengthens the movie’s heartbreaking, unspeakable truth: Human narcissism and all that it has wrought, including the destruction of nature, will finally be our downfall. In the end, McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.
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