Film in Focus: Don’t Look Up

Grace Richardson, Co-Executive Editor

Please note that this article contains spoilers.

When Netflix’s original film entitled “Don’t Look Up” hit the platform in December, it became an immediate hit with audiences. The storyline, satirical humor, and cast spoke to curious audiences. McKay’s latest dark comedy features a star-studded cast with Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Ariana Grande, Timotheé Chalamet, and Jonah Hill all making appearances. Adam McKay, who produced and wrote the film, has an impressive comedic resumé; he wrote skits for multiple seasons of Saturday Night Live and countless modern comedies. So, when I sat down to watch his newest film, I was ready to laugh. As I watched the movie, however, I became increasingly disturbed.

The movie follows doctoral candidate Kate Dibiaski (Jennifer Lawrence) and Michigan State astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they discover a comet hurtling directly at Earth. When they share their findings with President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and Jason (Jonah Hill), her son and chief of staff, the scientists face indifference and ignorance. The scientists appear on a talk show, and the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) treat the idea of a planet-killing comet with humor. After some time, President Orlean finally addresses the comet to save her campaign and distract from other political issues. Finally, everyone comes together to create a plan to divert the comet with nuclear missiles. As the missiles take off, President Orlean cancels the mission because the CEO of BASH (a fictional tech company), Peter Isherwell, finds valuable rare-earth metals on the comet. The cancellation causes an extreme division between people who believe the comet is real and an imminent threat, people who want the killer comet to hit Earth so trillions of dollars of metals can be retrieved, and those who refuse to acknowledge the existence of a comet at all. The President, who does not want people to believe the comet will hit Earth, convinces her supporters not to look up (the comet is visible in the sky). In the end, the BASH mission fails, and everyone on Earth dies except the extremely wealthy, including Isherwell and Orlean, who escape on a spacecraft.

From the start of the movie, it was clear that the planet-killing comet was a metaphor for climate change or COVID-19, although McKay wrote the script before the pandemic began. The metaphor still works because the comet, although a deadly threat, is seldom taken seriously. Many people even deny its existence and refuse to listen to credible scientists who warn the public and desperately try to convince to convince everyone that a giant comet hitting earth is objectively bad. Even when the comet is visible in the sky, its existence continues to divide the public, and the president urges everyone not to look up. The reaction accurately mirrors common responses to pressing issues like climate change and a global pandemic. As a society, we often politicize issues that should not be controversial like saving the planet from imminent threats, and this movie seeks to uncover that.

The most disturbing commentary on our society, however, is McKay’s depiction of how government officials responded to the comet. The government only reacts when it benefits their public image; they eventually cancel the planet-saving mission because of pure greed. Peter Isherwell represents the absurdly wealthy and powerful CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and the character raises questions about power and influence in our society.

What makes “Don’t Look Up” so successful is its realism that hits a bit too close to home. McKay based the characters and events on real people and real events, and the metaphors are hard to miss. The movie is difficult to watch because it is so painfully accurate; society is unable to agree upon the fact that a gigantic comet hitting Earth is bad. Although the movie is dark, I highly recommend watching it because it might make you consider new ideas about the state of our world today.