In the Greek myths, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, was afflicted by the gods with the curse that she would have accurate knowledge of future events but that nobody would ever believe what she said. Scientists in movies are the modern Cassandras.
Take the two astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) in Adam McKay’s latest satire Don’t Look Up, who discover a comet the size of Mount Everest, set to hit Earth in 6 months. When they go to the President of the United States, played with glib ignorance and garish narcissism by Meryl Streep, they are brushed aside. Sworn to confidentiality, the astronomers instead go to the media, where they are met with an even greater shallowness and ignorance by a celebrity-obsessed public and two annoyingly cheery but superficial breakfast television hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett).
What proceeds is a good but less than great satire on the current world. The targets are on point. McKay takes aim at the modern political divide, celebrity worship, clickbait and fake news, the control that big tech has over our lives, and climate change denialism. He is scathing and cynical. Even the heroes have addictions, as people get through the drudgery of their existence with their own special soma. This is a modern if slightly dumbed down Brave New World.
And there lies one of two problems with Don’t Look Up. Like so many movies today, it reduces its serious arguments to childish meme humour. But isn’t that the point of satire, to use humour to make a point about more serious issues? Yes. But satire must be clever. It must be more than just jokes that will make people with low attention spans elicit a chuckle. The satire in Don’t Look Up is shallow, just like the very things it is satirising. How many people will go away from this movie understanding McKay’s message, and how many will remember only that it stars Ariana Grande and that a naked Meryl Streep gets eaten by a velociraptor?
But the film’s biggest flaw is that it is a preachy, shouty, hypocritical, overlong mess. Leonardo DiCaprio often manages to find a way to shout in movies. Usually, he is shouting at another character. This time, he shouts directly at us. He screams at us. He is screaming about the comet, but you can substitute it for climate change, and the effect of the message is the same. We must get our heads out of the sand and take the issue seriously. I agree. I just resent being lectured to by a man who lives in a mansion, flies around the world, and has a greater carbon footprint than the average person.
Jennifer Lawrence filmed most of her scenes with a broken tooth and due to restrictions in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, she could not get it fixed. The missing tooth was added in post production.