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Don't Look Up review: Adam McKay's apocalypse allegory is amusing but heavy-handed

The star-studded film asks what would happen if scientists proved that a comet was headed for Earth.

DON'T LOOK UP
Published: Wednesday, 8th December 2021 at 12:01 am
A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Up until now, Adam McKay's directorial career has consisted of two very distinct phases. Following early success with riotous comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, he shifted gears towards more prestige-orientated fare – a move which saw him rewarded with a glut of awards nominations for his fact-based satires about the financial crash (The Big Short) and Dick Cheney (Vice) respectively.

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His new film, Don't Look Up – which boasts his most star-studded cast to date – is something a little different again, although it skews far more closely to the style of those later efforts. Rather than taking aim at a real-life subject, McKay has this time turned his attention to an imagined worst-case scenario – what would happen if scientists proved beyond all reasonable doubt that a comet was headed for Earth, certain to destroy the planet?

It is, of course, a rather heavy-handed metaphor for global warming, and the lack of sufficient action taken by governments in the face of impending climate collapse. We follow various broadly sketched characters, from Meryl Streep's vain, polling-obsessed President to Mark Rylance's bizarre, self-aggrandising tech billionaire, and watch their all too predictable responses to the disastrous news. The result is a somewhat overstuffed film that has all the sledgehammer subtlety you'd expect from an apocalyptic satire about a world-ending comet, but it does manage to deliver some good laughs – and enjoyable performances – along the way.

The setup is as follows: Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is mumbling along to a Wu-Tang Clan song in her lab when she makes a startling discovery – a previously unknown comet has entered the earth's atmosphere. At first, this seems like good news, but when Kate's supervisor Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) arrives on the scene and does some quick calculations it slowly dawns on them that this is not cause for celebration: the comet is on a direct collision course for Earth. And so Kate and Randall work as quickly as they can to alert the authorities to the catastrophic news, and soon find themselves on a long press tour to warn the public what lies in store.

Only, things don't quite go according to plan: the President doesn't want to draw attention to the disaster for fear of losing votes in the upcoming midterms, talk show hosts and social media influencers are more concerned with covering the latest celebrity break-up than the imminent destruction of the planet, and the public turn Kate's stark and rather hysterical warning into cruel meme-fodder.

At its worst, Don't Look Up has some of the same smugness that characterised McKay's previous two works, taking aim at fairly obvious targets without offering much in the way of actual insight. Across its runtime, the film satirises – amongst other things – social media reactions, tech billionaires, conspiracy theorists, political nepotism, Daily TV news, political correctness, celebrity posturing and clickbait journalism but it's all fairly broad, surface-level stuff that doesn't bring anything new to the table. Visually, it has the same polished sheen as McKay's previous efforts, while some flashy editing and frequent shots of nature only hammer home his point even more overtly. Meanwhile, some plot strands feel rather superfluous, contributing to a sense of bagginess – with the film coming in at just short of two-and-a-half hours.

The saving grace is that despite its broadness, the film is often very amusing – perhaps proving that McKay is still at his best as a director of straightforward comedy. He's helped here by some fun turns from a very game A-list cast, with Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, and Timothée Chalamet (Dune) among those whose exaggerated performances are a blast to watch, although I was less convinced by the normally brilliant Mark Rylance, who for some reason opts to speak in a rather bizarre high pitched voice throughout.

Meanwhile, Lawrence and DiCaprio make for an engaging double act in the lead roles, especially as their characters begin to react in drastically different ways to their newfound press attention – with the dweebish Randall undergoing something of a public transformation after being taken in by the charms of Blanchett's glamorous talk show host Brie Evantee, before a rather contrived Network-style breakdown later down the line.

All in all, those looking for genuinely sharp, cutting satire, would probably be best looking elsewhere – but as an amusing ensemble piece, Don't Look Up nonetheless manages to be a largely enjoyable affair.

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Don’t Look Up will be released in the UK on 10th December 2021. If you’re looking for something else to watch, check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Movies hub. 

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