Winnie Jiang

Adam McKay wrote the script for his upcoming film “Don’t Look Up” in a pre-pandemic world. Today, nearly two years into the pandemic, his movie about the politicization of issues that ought not be considered political still rings eerily prophetic. 

“Don’t Look Up, released on Dec. 10, follows the story of astronomy graduate student Kate Diabiasky — played by Jennifer Lawrence — who discovers a comet during a routine astronomy lab night. Diabiasky immediately alerts her advising professor Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, of the comet; while celebrating the news, Mindy calculates the comet’s distance from Earth. A few equations later, he finds the real problem of the discovery: the comet will hit our planet in six months. 

It will have an extinction level impact. 

The film follows Diabiasky and Mindy’s attempts to save humanity in the time remaining. Along the way, they meet a star studded cast including Meryl Streep as the U.S. President in a barely hidden Trump caricature, Jonah Hill as Streep’s son and Chief of Staff, and Mark Rylance as the robotic Peter IsherwellI, a clear stand-in for modern tech billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The list of household names in the film does not end: Cate Blanckett, Tyler Perry, Rob Morgan, Timothee Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, and Melanie Lynskey all playing key characters in their own respect.

At some moments, “Don’t Look Up” feels like it has a never-ending list of high grossing celebrities that will enter the scene at any moment. I would have been hardly surprised if Kylie Jenner emerged to play the role of an influencer using the comet as a means to promote her newest bubble bath line. 

Although Jenner never shows up, the film seems to be cognizant of the level of irony it operates under: nearly a dozen Hollywood stars critiquing the American public’s failure to recognize peril even when confronted with imminent death. We understand the hypocrisy at hand and McKay’s message: just as the film’s character’s face impending extinction in the form of a comet, our society faces an environmental crisis. The metaphor becomes that climate change is happening and the systems in place will not save us. 

“I don’t think it’s any big spoiler alert that the movie is really about the climate crisis,” McKay told me in a Netflix roundtable on Monday, referencing the film’s blatant conversation on denial in the media, “I have friends in broadcast media, and they’ll tell you that they’re reticent to deal with the climate crisis, which empirically speaking, is probably the biggest threat to life in the history of mankind. And yet, it’s happening right now.”

On Monday McKay acknowledged that the script is hardly vague with its metaphor. While his previous political films — “The Big Short” and “Vice,” to name a few — have handled their topics a bit more indirectly, the time may be over for such subtle films. 

“We’re at the point where we have to throw off the idea of trying to be ‘oh so clever and oh so subtle.’ I like that the idea hits and we’re off to the races,” McKay said. “It’s a naked cry of: ‘we’re drowning.’”

The film deals with the world-threatening emergency through an intentional warping of time. A day may take half an hour while months pass by in mere minutes. Intercut with the narrative sequence told through the eyes of Diabiasky and Mindy are moments of stillness that could be clips from a Nature document; a frog swims while in the next clip a baby sees the world around them for the first time. Much like the clock in Times Square that now counts down the time that humanity has remaining before climate change is irreversible, “Don’t Look Up” plays with temporality and the constraints it places on our perspectives during crises.

“It’s really important for folks to recognize that we can take meaningful action to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. That’s also a part of this movie.” said Amy Mainzer, astronomer and professor of planetary science at University of Arizona who served as a science advisor for the film, “It’s a wake up call for folks to really heed what scientists are saying about climate change and other topics that affect us — like the pandemic.”

Equally, “Don’t Look Up” is political in its apolitical stance. The question of polarization rings throughout the film as we are meant to question the effect that polemic debates have taken in our cultural consciousness: since when did believing in science become political?

To bridge the gap between individuals on either side of the political spectrum, McKay commented on Monday that the film’s use of dark comedy is quite intentional. According to McKay, during “emergency times” such as these, comedy is a necessary tool to create connections between individuals otherwise divided. 

Mainzer echoed McKays sentiment, commenting that if we can “laugh at ourselves a little bit” and recognize our own downfalls and “shared humanity,” then we can get over ourselves and get past artificial divisions to solve problems collectively.

“It’s gonna make you laugh, and hopefully it’ll make you think,” Mainzer said. “The message is that the future is really up to us.”

Finally, if the film is one thing, it is unapologetic. A critique of polite society and forced niceties, “Don’t Look Up” refuses to be pulled into meaningless conversations, while equally balancing and indulging America’s obsession with the drama of celebrity lives. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi both play pop star roles, blatantly laughing at the large position that their personal lives occupy in the news. McKay is right that despite the more pressing issues that humanity faces, we love to turn our heads and have our brains filled with “fluff” that requires no real thought. 

The biggest struggle I have with “Don’t Look Up” is the problem that arises with a large political campaign directed at the public. Even if the film seems cognizant of the ironic narrative its presenting, I have difficulty with a critique of bureaucracy coming from the heart of Hollywood. 

Yet, the immediate contraction I discover in this train of thought is that this criticism seems to beg for moral purity from those that seek justice for our World. In an industry saturated with largely films that go as deep as my local town’s kiddy pool, I found “Don’t Look Up” to otherwise be a breath of fresh air. A distressing and panicked breath, but one nonetheless. 

McKay with the help of his cast and Mainzer has given us a no-bullshit narrative. Maybe we’re beyond indulging in nuance and subtlety as a culture. Maybe we don’t deserve it anymore.

If we can’t even listen to each other, how are we supposed to listen to an impersonal underlying message distanced from us through our screens? 

I enjoyed and was shaken by “Don’t Look Up.” If you’ll take my word for it, it’s worth a watch either in theaters or when it comes out to Netflix on Dec. 24.