In 2018, I stood up for director Adam McKay’s mid-credits scene in Vice, in which teenage girls show no interest in politics but instead in the Fast & Furious sequel. The scene may appear hypocritical and condescending to lots of viewers, but I can understand his feeling that it is highly likely that a detached populace will repeat its mistakes, and that Donald Trump’s winning the election was the reason behind the making of Vice – as a criticism as well as a warning. Well, I was wrong. McKay just likes feeling superior to his audiences, as if no one else has ever read a newspaper or a book. With his latest movie Don’t Look Up, McKay has made his points about America’s problems – politics, media, capitalist overlords and identities – all wrapped within the first 20 minutes of the movie and then gets stretched out for another two hours. And if someone is not clear about how our separation and capitalist interests makes us incapable of addressing our own issues, then McKay is willing to open your eyes.
Doctoral student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) have discovered a giant comet heading straight to Earth, possibly hitting and destroying the whole planet in six months. However, it seems impossible to spread this disaster out to the public in this media-saturated society and convince President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), a resemblance of Trump, and her son/chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill) to understand and respect the seriousness of the issue. Orlean does not want to let such tragic news interfere with her midterms, so Mindy, Dibiasky and fellow scientist Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) turns to the press, only to find out it was no use. And later when Orlean changes her mind and decides to deflect the comet, however, her plans are disrupted by Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a Silicon Valley billionaire who wants to mine the comet for its resources.
Though it is clearly a metaphor for climate change, we can also apply the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lesson here is that this polarized society we’re living in is facing a crisis of epistemology in which no scientific facts can get our respect, actions or even attention. We want to believe we are logical despite all the opposite evidence, however, when facing certain catastrophe, we’ll just turn to entertainment (seen in the celebrity couple Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi), entertainment in the form of news programs (with anchors starred by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett), social media and other means of entertainment that McKay looks down on but at the same time believes they are the only way to draw our attention to what really matters.
This approach worked in The Big Short (2015) due to the complication of financial concepts. Not everybody is familiar with a credit default swap or “sub-prime mortgage,” and most people do not understand how the financial industry can leverage its powers by making people feel they are not smart enough to join. Vice fell short, but at least there is something to learn, such as the Unitary Executive theory’s significant role and the reason behind the direct line from the George W. Bush’s administration to the Trump’s. However, in Vice, it can be seen that McKay is irritated with the Americans, and now with Don’t Look Up, his frustration bursts out.
The thing here is that McKay’s frustration doesn’t go any further than what’s already been known. The whole world is going through the same pandemic as him. It is quite obvious how netizens take sides over vaccines’ efficiency. McKay’s fatalism is not wrong but rather apparent and condescending. It is true that people are polarized due to a combination of political and capitalist ambitions and the social media’s way of making entertainment out of news, but are they really not aware of that? Or to dig deeper, does McKay really believe Don’t Look Up can get aboard his opponents? The movie doesn’t act as a sneak attack but instead an angry rant, who wants a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on something they already know? It seems that McKay is significantly frustrated with the fact that nobody is acting rationally without truly understanding about identity politics. Though it is possible that media and politics can deepen polarization, with such an empathy lacking movie, director McKay can’t expect to reach anyone except for those already rooting for him.
McKay’s conclusion about Don’t Look Up sums up in “Well, at least I tried,” but the movie is barely an effort. It barely takes any effort to draw a primary and weary observation and not actually gives out any knowledge. It barely takes any effort to gather a bunch of well-known people in one movie and get Netflix to pay. It barely takes any effort to create a movie with most characters being absurd and degenerated but then add some random “life” images to imply that we’re worth saving (the editing is particularly brutal because every jump cut and cutaway is a scream of “Understand?!” to what happens in the scene).
In the end, what audiences can recall about the movie is profoundly complacent. It’s the commentator interfering in a conversation, asking “Why are we not talking about this,” and McKay answers the question on his own – we’re not talking about it because we don’t have the power to stop a catastrophe. Don’t Look Up is not a story of caution but rather a fatalistic withhold that we’ve heard over and over again. No original viewpoints are made in the movie and it’s so scornful of everybody and everything that it doesn’t even try to tell a good joke. The experience with the movie is constantly dull as I agree with McKay on all of his opinions but the manner of the making of Don’t Look Up is simply unbearable.
Don’t Look Up hits the box office on December 10th and arrives on Netflix two weeks later.