A comet the size of Mount Everest is hurtling towards Earth and mankind has six months to knock it off course. If we fail, all 7.75billion of us will be wiped out in an instant. It doesn’t sound very funny, but in the deft hands of writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice), it’s the basis for a sharp and thought-provoking black comedy film. You’ll laugh, but you’ll also come away thinking “oh shit”.
McKay now has such pulling power that his heroes are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, two superstars with 11 Oscar noms between them. DiCaprio dials down his charisma, at least to begin with, as Dr Randall Mindy, an unassuming Michigan State University astronomer who crunches the numbers and realises we’re doomed six months from now after Lawrence’s Dr Kate Dibiasky spots the comet. After sharing the discovery with eminent scientist Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), they sensibly take this terrifying news to the leader of the free world. At this point, McKay tricks us by introducing the President as a woman (yay!), played by Meryl Streep (double yay!), before revealing that her character, Janie Orlean, is a corrupt chancer who won’t take this existential threat seriously. Sound like anyone you know?
After being patronised by Streep’s hopeless POTUS and her smug son-slash-chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill), the well-meaning trio decide their only option is to mount a public awareness campaign. Mindy and Dibiasky are clearly skilled scientists, but neither is very press-savvy, so they initially struggle to get their message across. Here, McKay hits his satirical target time brilliantly as the misogynist media elevates Mindy into a sexy authority figure while painting Dibiasky as an unstable embarrassment. After she’s turned into a cruel social media meme, her journalist boyfriend Philip (Himesh Patel) writes a clickbait-y article on her: a deft touch in a film that’s full of them.
It’s easy to see why Don’t Look Up‘s apocalyptic premise appealed to DiCaprio, a longtime climate change campaigner, and he responds by matching Lawrence’s simmering frustration with a performance that pivots from dithering to blistering. It’s especially fun seeing him bounce off Cate Blanchett, who really eats up her scenes as Brie Evantee, a TV anchor who’s turned professional glibness into an art form. Other extended cameos confirm McKay’s gift for getting A-listers to send themselves up. Ariana Grande and Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi gamely play a famous music world couple mining their relationship for social media traction, while Timothée Chalamet is knowingly gawky as a skater boy drawn to Lawrence’s straight-talking astronomer. Mark Rylance also shines in a key supporting role as Peter Isherwell, the creepy CEO of an Apple-like tech giant.
McKay’s political satire isn’t always subtle – one scene shows Streep’s leader whipping up a rally in a MAGA-style baseball cap – but it does feel horribly convincing. Though Don’t Look Up loses some momentum towards the end of its 138-minute runtime, it still succeeds as both a raucous comedy and a grim cautionary tale. By the end, McKay has definitely driven home his message that Earth is ours for the saving.
- Director: Adam McKay
- Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep
- Release date: December 10 (select cinemas), December 24 (Netflix)