In 1964, right in the middle of the US-USSR Cold War, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark comedy about nuclear war breaking out between the world’s national superpowers. Since then, Strangelove has gone on to become one of the vaunted director’s most well-regarded films and the standard for cinematic satire, a chance to laugh instead of cry. Also, in the almost 60 years since the film’s release, the Soviet Union collapsed (although, as of this writing, it seems the groundwork is being laid for its return) and the world did not end in a massive nuclear war. Part of what makes Dr. Strangelove such a landmark dark comedy is that humanity survived long enough to let it become a landmark. The same can’t be said of Adam McKay’s similarly dark satire Don’t Look Up as, unlike its decades-old predecessor, we don’t know if we’ll survive.
The biggest joke in Don’t Look Up is that the film is a comedy. It is not. It is a horror film. It is perhaps the most terrifying horror film of the last decade for the simple fact that the inaptitude, opportunism, and apathy on display in nearly every scene of Don’t Look Up is more believable than any serial killer or undead menace could ever be. In the same way that the social satire Get Out turned everyday fears of African Americans into effective psychological horror, Don’t Look Up uses humanity’s pursuit of distraction (including watching comedy films), our mass acceptance of ignorance, and even its own classification as a “comedy” to drive home its point: we’re all going to f***ing die. We know it. And we’re not doing a damn thing about it.
Beginning as simple astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are quickly thrust into national focus after discovering that a comet between 6 and 9 kilometers wide has a 99.78 percent chance of hitting Earth and ending all life. Although, as anyone on the internet knows, if something isn’t 100 percent true in every conceivable circumstance, then it must be 100 percent false, a hoax, a lie, fake news, a conspiracy to take away your guns, weed, kids, shoes, whatever else it is you hold dear. In short, the comet isn’t the threat. The scientists who want to take away your freedom, they’re the real threat. After all, didn’t scientists also create nuclear and biological weapons? Didn’t scientists say there was a hole in the o-zone? Hitler had scientists conduct experiments on prisoners during the Holocaust. Scientists said we landed on the moon, and that’s obviously a lie because I didn’t see it, and the video footage I did see was filmed on a Hollywood stage in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick, who also made Dr. Strangelove, and we didn’t die of nuclear war, so everything must be fake. Hey, the comet is named after one of the scientists telling us that the comet has only a 70 percent chance of killing everyone, which is almost 60 percent, so that must be more like a 50 percent chance, and I just got heads on ten consecutive coin flips, so she must be lying so that she and all the other scientists can keep getting paid by Stanley Kubrick who faked his death and has been living with JFK, Tupac, Elvis, and the Lochness Monster in Area 51.
Don’t Look Up uses the ease with which humanity is capable of such feats of mental gymnastics as the basis of its humor, and resultant horror.
In trying to spread the facts of our impending doom, Kate and Randall meet a stacked cast of supporting talent all bringing utmost commitment to often cartoonish material, including Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Ron Perlman, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, and Meryl Strep as an American president whose look, manner, and photograph with Bill will convince some in the audience that she’s based on Hilary Clinton, while her nepotism, appointment of unqualified justices, and eventual reliance on a campaign based on voters not believing their own eyes will remind everyone else of Hilary’s 2016 opponent. While the audience may know where writers McKay and David Sirota appear on the political spectrum, Don’t Look Up never mentions either party, preferring instead to satirize the scandals and predilections of people on both sides of America’s current political divide, a tactic that only falls away after ninety minutes when the film’s full-throated defense of objective fact, as voiced by DiCaprio himself, highlights the absurdity of reality becoming a political issue.
Easy as it is to see the comet of Don’t Look Up as an allegory for climate change, and having a renowned environmentalist deliver this message adds to that argument, the film isn’t only interested in DiCaprio’s real life cause. The last two years have seen an explosion in distrust and denial of what used to be some of the foundational beliefs of society. Millions of our fellows dedicate tens of millions of waking hours to arguing against the very science and math which have allowed humanity the luxury of holding such arguments. Society requires agreement on a core set of beliefs to function – be it the recognition of climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, the events of history, or even that racists, sexists, and fascists are, in fact, evil – yet so many of these once fundamental principles have crumbled into political talking points that society itself seems on the verge of collapse. Sadly, as also voiced in DiCaprio’s monologue, whether because they don’t agree or because they don’t think the scene is funny, most people still won’t listen. We are in denial of our own denial. Yet, part of the reason even its own audience won’t embrace Don’t Look Up‘s message is its own fault.
At two-hours and eighteen minutes (exact numbers are important) the film is relatively long for a comedy. Strangelove clocked in at 95 minutes. Thus it’s obvious why much of Don’t Look Up‘s early energy, including an on-screen flourish that never returns, dilutes as the film’s focus wanes as new interests and concerns steer Dibiasky and Mindy away from trying to convince the world to take its imminent demise seriously. Rather than taking Kubrick’s route of centralizing on three locations to thoroughly dissect its target, Don’t Look Up uses a scattershot approach to satire, hitting opportunistic politicians, vapid show hosts, celebrity obsession, social media, meme culture, messianic tech billionaires (with Rylance’s Isherwell as a disturbing personification of algorithmic advertising), and even the nihilists who reject social acceptance in order to receive social acceptance. As funny as many of these scenes are, the result is the film feeling at times unfocused, as unable to make a cohesive statement as its characters are. However, much less obvious than the loss of momentum, this very lack of focus further enforces Don’t Look Up‘s central thesis. We, the viewing audience, know that Dibiasky and Mindy, heralds of the apocalypse, lose their focus as outside distractions dilute their message. We, the viewing audience, also know that we’re watching a movie about a coming extinction-level event rather than doing anything about our own coming extinction-level events. The film is unfocused because we, the viewing audience, are unfocused. Just as the targets of the film’s satire reflect elements of our real world, the film’s lack of attention reflects our real world lack of attention. Sadly, like Don’t Look Up‘s indifferent and incompetent society, we may only find clarity when staring directly at our doom.
In 1964, Kubrick’s Strangelove was met with immediate popular and critical success. In 2021, Don’t Look Up is already considered a commercial failure with minimal box office (although, it is a Netflix film, so what does that even mean?) and many critics saying it lacks the sharp criticism of Kubrick’s work. Where Strangelove was a scalpel – precise, sharp, cutting only what needs to be cut – Don’t Look Up is a buzz saw – unwieldy, blunt, shattering everything in sight. Yet, unlike Strangelove, Don’t Look Up can’t be narrowed to a handful of political and military leaders. The cause of the on-screen problem is rooted in all of modern society. Scalpels are effective against small points of infection, they don’t work on rotting limbs. For those, you need a buzz saw.
Don’t Look Up is very funny, if uneven, with fewer quick and clever punch lines than wide swings at broad, unsubtle comedy. As well, periodic cuts to beautiful shots of both space and places on Earth, with creatures and people of other cultures, drive home the idea that global crises don’t just effect American citizens or their own personal finances. At this point however, after one year of half of America’s political parties denying every shred of empirical data on election results, two years of people still denying a pandemic that has killed millions, and decades of scientists warning that human activity is causing global climate change, maybe we don’t need a swift poke in the chest. Maybe what we need is a punch in the face. Maybe instead of a short, layered comedy that only a select few will fully understand, we need one of the world’s biggest movie stars literally screaming at us. Maybe at a time when we have the lawyer of an actual – not fictional – former president saying “truth isn’t truth” we need someone, actual or fictional, to remind us that yes it goddamn is.
Hopefully someday we’ll be able to laugh at climate change and the mass dismissal of science in Don’t Look Up the same way we can laugh at the nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove. But right now, while Don’t Look Up may not always make you laugh, it should make you very, very scared.