By Ben Spaeth
Photo: Netflix – Source
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up has been stirring up a lot of conversation online. Viewers and critics seemed to be divided about the film, with it receiving a 55% from critics and a 78% from audience members on Rotten Tomatoes. Fans have been arguing that the movie portrays an accurate depiction of the 24 hour news cycle, and demonstrates how quickly the media is willing to move on to the next big story, even if the previous is about the world coming to an end. On the other side, critics say that the film continuously hammers home the same message and provides little substance outside of it. This begs the question, does this movie succeed in conveying its politically charged message, or is the film using its message as a means to cover up its technical flaws?
While Don’t Look Up has many parallels to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Adam McKay actually wrote the script before Covid-19 was even making headlines. However, what we don’t know is how much the film changed during production to reflect on the current state of the world. What is very clear though is that this film would have certainly been received differently if audiences had not just been through a global pandemic. Although, without the precedent set by the Trump administration’s response to Covid-19, it is hard to say whether or not an audience would have believed that the President of the United States would have done nothing to prevent the end of the world. That being said, I actually think that the message of climate change as a looming unseeable threat would have hit harder without the presence of Covid-19. Because the meteor is an effective metaphor for both Covid-19 and climate change, the audience is left deciding which scenes and shots are meant to satire the pandemic and which are meant to satire the climate crisis. While usually it’s a good thing for movies to be open ended, for a movie as literal and on the nose as Don’t Look Up, this seems like a major flaw.
For political satire to be effective it needs to challenge authority and demonstrate how the current systems in place are failing. Political satire does not need to provide solutions to any of the problems it presents, rather it aims to point out the fallacies in the way a government is addressing a problem. If we take a look back at some of the most successful and beloved political satire films, these two tenants are very present.
Dr. Strangelove is a perfect example of political satire done right. It discusses a hot button issue that concerns the fate of the world, nuclear weapons, and demonstrates how our leaders may respond to and possibly cause a catastrophic event. Much like Don’t Look Up, the clock is ticking until the end of the world, and the characters have to figure out how to save humanity.
The political leaders in Don’t Look Up act purely out of selfishness and seemingly have no regard for the people they govern. This makes Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky’s (Jennifer Lawrence) goal of stopping the meteor incredibly frustrating to watch as at every turn it seems that President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is unwilling to do anything about the situation unless it helps her politically. Most of the humor relating to the catastrophic situation comes from the absurd reactions from President Orlean and Jason Orlean. (Jonah Hill) Unlike Dr. Strangelove, the absurdity does not come from leaders attempting to deal with an absurd situation, rather it comes from the absurdity of not dealing with the situation.
A successful political satire has to accurately depict the political landscape, otherwise it will appear as the film is attacking a straw man. Dr. Strangelove is commenting on the absurdity of mutually assured destruction as a foreign policy in the midst of the Cold War. In fact the film has aged so well because of how accurately it discusses these topics. This gives the film a time capsule sort of effect. Where the audience can process the Cold War from the perspective of those who lived through it.
Another example of a film with this time capsule effect is Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The Great Dictator came out in 1940 and satirized Hitler and the Nazi regime. The film shows how the Allied Nations viewed Adolf Hitler at the beginning of World War II and seeks to raise awareness of the horrors of anti-jewish violence carried out by the Nazis. However, this film came out before the Allies knew the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust. Because of this, the depiction of concentration camps is woefully inaccurate. Chaplin is seen joking around with guards and his material conditions seem closer to a prison than they do a concentration camp. Nowadays this scene serves as a brutal reminder of the ignorance other countries had of this horrific event.
What will audiences take away from Don’t Look Up in the years following its release? It’s hard to predict the future, but if anything was to come out of this film I hope it would be that people need to trust scientists and peer reviewed research. Don’t Look Up does a great job at capturing the pitfalls of the 24 hour news cycle, but news syndication as it presently stands doesn’t seem like it will change anytime soon. If anything, the onset of the effects of climate change will leave viewers coming back and watching with a newfound perspective.
Love it or hate it, Don’t Look Up does effectively satirize the current political climate. It shows political leaders acting at the behest of corporate interests instead of the people, how fast the media is willing to drop a story for the next big thing, and how hard it is to spread truth while others perpetrate misinformation campaigns. Is the movie perfect? No. Is criticism of the film, criticism of the film’s message? Absolutely not. It’s important to separate film critiques from political critiques.