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Don’t Look Up

Director: Adam McKay (USA). Year of Release: 2021

Kate Dibiasky is a grad student at the University of Michigan. As part of her studies, she notices a new comet (later to be called Comet Dibiasky). She takes it to her supervisor, Dr. Mindy, who confirms that it is on a collision course with the earth. As the comet is between 5km and 10km wide, this means that humanity has just over 6 months left to live.

Dibiasky and Mindy are obviously a little concerned about this and contact Washington. They are immediately whisked onto a military aeroplane and taken to the White House. Where they spend the rest of the day waiting while the president sorts out important matters of state. Turns out that her chosen nominee for the Supreme Court not only has no qualification in law, he was also in a porn film. Oh, and President Orlean had sent him the female equivalent of a dick pic (a clit pic?)

Whatever, by the time that they tell the president the news of everyone’s imminent demise, she tries to postpone actually doing anything until the upcoming Mid Term elections. So they appear on a sensational television programme. The tv station’s make up people trim Mindy’s scruffy beard, and he suddenly gets a reputation as a hot scientist (it helps that he’s being played by Leonardo di Caprio). Meanwhile Dibiasky is demonised as a moaning harpie.

There’s more of this, but this is probably enough to show you two things. Firstly, that Don’t Look Up is basically on the Right Side. For science and truth, against populism and opportunist politicians. The second is that, however much it would like to be a second Doctor Strangelove or Network, the satire on display uses very broad brush strokes and avoids subtlety at all costs.

Maybe it’s time to talk about the film’s politics, which come from the left wing of the US Democrat party – the film was co-written by former Bernie Sanders script writer David Sirota. This brings with it strengths and weaknesses, both politically and artistically. On the plus side, it savages not just right wing politicians but a system which is increasingly in thrall to Elon Musk type entrepreneurs who are allowed to dictate government policy.

But while Don’t Look Up has a good sense of who the enemy is, it is unable to contemplate working ouside the existing system. Orlean is out of control, a megalomaniac representative of an evil party (presumably the Republicans). Yet we are not afforded the slightest glimpse of any other party. It is like reading a report from a Keir Starmer apologist who is rightly incensed by the actions of Boris Johnson, but cannot understand the lack of opposition which gave him his power.

There are working class people, but they are all supporters of Orlean. At one of her rallies, one of the speakers appeals to them, saying that working class people and the “respectable rich” are united against “those out there” who look down their noses at them. There is a recycled joke about telephone sanitisers which I remember from one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books in the early 1980s. But the speaker does have a point, which the film only half acknowledges.

At one stage, there is a benefit conference, where Ariande Grande sends herself up as a pampered protest singer, calling on people to Just Look Up (and recognise that a comet is about to hit the earth). At this point, more than any other, the film is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it is satirising celebrities using their fame to try to preach politics to people who earn much less than them. On the other, the political solution it offers is no more coherent than Grande’s.

Don’t Look Up has found its time – more so than its makers could have ever anticipated. Originally written at the height of Trumpism, it is a plea to return to science and to stop listening to populist politicians just making things up. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the Corona denial movement, which kind of proves many of the points that the film was trying to make.

And yet, this is also a very elitist film, which cannot conceive of ordinary people organising in social movements, or joining trade unions or even having their own ideas. “Trust the science” very quickly becomes “you are just irrelevant because you don’t have a science degree”. Which means that – like many liberals – it is both appalled by Trumpism, while excluding any alternative outside an exclusive liberal elite. And it wonders why some victims of society look to the right wing.

This makes for very weak satire, but there’s a whole host of Hollywood liberals on show, some of whom are very good actors indeed. Di Caprio is good, but he is regularly upstaged by Jennifer Lawrence as the increasingly cynical and shouty Dibiasky. And while it doesn’t deserve to spend 2 ½ hours of our time (few films do), it doesn’t drag too much.

Worth a watch as an interesting experiment, but all this could have been done so much better. Repeat after me: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more”.

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