It can be instructive to w
atch a film without having seen a single review. This is what I did in January in the case of Don’t Look Up, in which Americans respond to the news that a huge comet will collide with the earth in six months and 14 days. The film, I concluded in my naiveté, managed to capture two subjective sensations: helplessness in the face of existential threat to the planet, and fuse-blowing exasperation when this threat is met by tidal waves of denial and a relentlessly myopic focus on anthropocentric trivia. And it did this with humour (not subtle, but humour nevertheless), a brisk pace, two or three strong characters to invest in, some great visuals and, above all, an understanding that if you want to get a serious point across to a wide audience, one minute of pure entertainment is worth a thousand sermons.
The next day, however, I learned via Twitter that Don’t Look Up,was ‘divisive’; in fact “the most divisive movie in years”. A brief scan of the critics confirmed this, with some papers publishing violently contradictory reviews on successive days. You might expect the negative assessments (“a laboured satire”, “slapstick apocalypse”, “bombastic”) to come from those whom the drama sets out to skewer, namely the denialists; but this was not necessarily the case – quite a few climate activists were unimpressed, as well as a slew of sniffy critics from both ends of the political spectrum.
Overwhelmingly these people focused on what the film fails to do – what it leaves out – rather than what it does or intends to do. The comet metaphor is ‘clumsy’, they said, because it places the cause of the crisis firmly beyond humanity, rather than confronting the truth that we, down here, are the cause. This perhaps is the criticism with most validity, but I don’t think the film sets out to explain causes, its focus is quite specifically on how people – individuals and groups – react, or fail to react, to impending catastrophe. Other critics argued that the fossil fuel industry gets off too lightly, that the exclusively US setting obscures the unequal impact of climate change globally. Again, valid points, but this isn’t a documentary. Meanwhile a different bunch of critics were complaining the film wasn’t funny enough, or not funny in the right way, and anyway it had too many famous actors in it (yes, that was an actual criticism).
The most bizarre review (in The Guardian, I won’t name the journalist) accuses director Adam McKay of “blanket contempt” for humanity, and then goes on to say the film has “the tone and reach of a political Facebook meme sent out by a well-meaning elder relative”. No patronising ageist contempt there, then.
So what is good? Our guides to the apocalypse are Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) as the astronomy PhD who discovers the comet, and Leonardo DiCaprio as her supervisor, Professor Randall Mindy, whose sudden emergence into public life transforms him from modest academic (“I haven’t published in a while”) to AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to Fuck) on social media. They are required to do little more initially than express incredulous outrage when the US President decides the best thing to do about the comet is “sit tight and assess”, but their stories diverge abruptly, with just enough credibility to provide two anchoring points of view.
One sturdy test of a decent film (or play, or novel) is the attention paid to secondary characters, and here the score is quite high. Mark Rylance clearly enjoys himself as the chilly, wispy-voiced tech billionaire, a study in bland contempt, while Melanie Lynskey, in contrast, is touching as June, Prof Mindy’s unassuming wife, contributing a note of authentic pathos to the last supper toward the end. Meryl Streep’s Trumpish President (she appears here like a cross between Ivanka Trump and Carrie from Sex and the City), seems OTT until you remember the real Trump. Ariana Grande’s flamboyantly self-absorbed socialite (given top billing on the TV news, naturally, ahead of the End of the World) is a perfect cameo. There was some superfluity in the cast though – the gung-ho rocket man added little, and Jennifer’s Lawrence’s skateboarder love interest (Timothee Chalamet) seemed underpowered as a character.
Don’t Look Up moves at breakneck pace and is so stuffed with content it’s hard to identify standout scenes or dialogue, with the result that many sharp throwaway lines are, literally, thrown away. There is, for instance, the phlegmatic studio technician who comments after Kate Diabasky’s enraged outburst on live TV: “It’s ok, my brother has bipolar disorder too.” Some great directors from the past (Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed come to mind) would have appreciated the wry human truth a line like that can give, especially when spoken by a walk-on part. Attention to detail is one of the marks of a superior film; Don’t Look Up has so much detail that individual moments tend to be swamped. It borrows from the 20th century past in punctuating the action with newsstand headlines (“Will there be a Superbowl?” “Stock markets up” “Stock markets down” “23% don’t believe there is a comet”) as well as social media conspiracy theories, notably “Jewish billions invented this comet” – satire that hits the spot but made me wish for the occasional sobering moment of silence, with no words or people.
If anything, then, Don’t Look Up probably tries to do too much, not too little, which is why the criticisms seem so off-beam. Any artistic project which takes a massive question or problem as its central theme – and you can’t get more massive than the end of the world – will have to decide where its focus is, and to be ruthless in cutting a great deal out. The focus here is on denial, the tone is satirical, the appeal broad. To ask why the film omits most of the science, why it fails to include all political and economic malefactors, or to object that the humour is not to your taste, seems wilfully peevish.
For those who say the film lacks subtlety, watch out for the early scene where Mark Rylance’s character is marketing his new phone. A supposedly cute but oddly repellent meme pops up behind him – a puppy riding on a hen’s back, like a hybrid creature. Right at the end, a similar, decidedly uncute creature appears. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but if so, bravo.
Don’t Look Up bears comparison with two other excellent films with similar themes: The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and Melancholia (2011).
The 1961 disaster film directed by Val Guest is superb – it’s the one set in a London newspaper office, ending with two alternative front-page headlines waiting for the presses: ‘World Doomed’ and ‘World Saved’. This time the earth has been tilted off its axis by Russian and American nuclear bomb tests and is moving nearer the sun. It’s prescient: odd changes in the weather are noticed slowly, the government won’t give out any information, it gets hotter, there are water shortages and riots, the Arctic melts, then the Thames dries up…and the dialogue is consistently sharp. The reporter/hero’s final article starts like this:
“So Man has sown the wind – and reaped the whirlwind. Perhaps in the next few hours, there will be no remembrance of the past, and no hope for the future that might have been. All the works of Man will be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created.”
Powerful, but “the works of Man”. The natural world, the destruction of animals and plants, barely figure in The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it’s all about us Don’t Look Up shows more awareness, intercutting a jewel-like hummingbird with a rubbish truck, for instance, but it’s still quite anthropocentric.
For an experience of subtly escalating, immersive dread, set against a background of heartbreaking beauty, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is unbeatable. Here a large planet (named Melancholia) has unexpectedly emerged from behind another one. Needless to say, there is absolutely no danger that this planet will crash into earth; instead, everybody says, it will be a spectacular ‘fly-by’, something to tell your grandchildren.
In the first half of the film we are at a grandiose wedding reception with fractious guests and a bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As the human party disintegrates in bitterness and farce, night descends: Tristan and Isolde is the soundtrack, the last wedding guests disperse across shadowed lawns to watch the full moon rise – except there are two full moons up there. Beauty and horror.
In the second part we are alone in the isolated country house with Justine, her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Claire’s husband (Keifer Sutherland) and her son. Claire’s husband is in bullish denial about the new planet, her depressed sister either does not care or even welcomes the prospect of total annihilation, and the child is too young to understand. The scene where Claire holds up a crude measuring instrument to the sky (her husband made it to reassure her that Melancholia is moving away) and understands that the rogue planet is now bigger, closer, is one of the most frightening in cinema. It was Dunst who picked up a best actress award for Justine in Melancholia, and while she is good, in my view this is Gainsbourg’s film. Compassionate, conscientious, unable to deny the truth, Gainsbourg’s Claire seems to represent the best of humanity, and in the end she is utterly alone.
Von Trier made Melancholia in 2011, seven years before the climate crisis finally began to grab the headlines. In the film the world becomes more beautiful as doom approaches, the rogue planet creating sudden storms and luminous light effects that crystallise the beauty of what is about to be lost. The symbolism seems clearer now than it did at the time, but pedantic critics pointed out that the proximity of the visiting planet would have caused fatal destruction long before it got that close. Von Trier created a work of art, but still there were people determined to pick holes in it. The makers of Don’t Look Up, a very different film, could take comfort from that.
Don’t Look Up (2021), Film directed by Adam McKay
Netflix, 2hr 25m
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961), Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Volume 36 no 4 March / April 2022