Most contemporary satirical films are compared to Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.” It is the standard by which critics and viewers decide if the satire succeeded. Yet in the past decades no film has come close to matching the sharpness and wit of the classic.
However, Adam McKay and David Sirota’s “Don’t Look Up” nearly equals the potency of “Dr. Strangelove,” and as time passes, “Don’t Look Up” may prove to be even more sophisticated and meaningful.
McKay and Sirota recognize climate disruption is hurtling humanity toward mass extinction, and corporate, media, and political elites in the United States would rather not act than jeopardize their self-interest. Developing a farce about their lack of a response would probably have a limited impact. So McKay and Sirota take what is most distressing and infuriating about climate inaction and map it onto a story about a comet hurtling toward Earth.
Everyone can agree that a comet hitting Earth would be horrifying. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) believe after spotting the comet that they will have no problem convincing President Orlean (Meryl Streep) to act immediately. Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (a real agency), is willing to join them in conveying this terrible news about the end of the world.
Hours go by, and the President makes the scientists come back the following day because there is a lurid scandal surrounding the White House’s nominee for the Supreme Court, which they find more important than whatever scientists have to tell them. Orlean and her son (Jonah Hill), the chief of staff, are finally briefed by the scientists the next day and advise the scientists to “sit tight and assess.” They also warn them not to speak to the public about their classified conversations, setting up the ability of them to charge them with crimes if they talk to the press.
The scientists face multiple dilemmas at this stage, all illustrating how humanity is fucked. They must find a way to communicate to the news media that a comet will hit Earth. They are not exaggerating about the severity of the threat, and the President of the United States has hesitated to act. Then they must persuade the White House to mobilize the response necessary to destroy the comet before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, if that is even possible.
Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), host “The Daily Rip,” a morning program that exemplifies the obstacles posed by corporate news. The show would rather feature pop music icons and manufacture viral moments than give air time to scientists to warn of a comet that is coming. Talk of gloom and doom is a vibe killer. Still, it is the scientists best hope for informing Americans about the comet, and they use this show to break the news to the world.
Another dilemma is Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the CEO of BASH who is the head of a multinational tech company and an amalgam of Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. Isherwell is a super-donor to the Orlean administration. Whatever Isherwell says the administration will do, and when he has an enterprise in mind for the comet, the White House listens, especially since there is a geopolitical argument to be made for his plan.
The Comet could be anything that endangers the lives of the global population. Several viewers have compared the Comet to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is any real and significant threat posed to humanity that goes or has gone unaddressed after officials were fully informed the consequences if they did not act.
The scientists trying their damnedest to convince news media producers, business executives, politicians, and the administration in the White House to take action are any individuals or groups that have ever poured their heart and soul into an issue but failed to gain traction.
“Dr. Strangelove” skewered how a simple misunderstanding during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union could lead to the deployment of nuclear weapons and mass extinction. “Don’t Look Up” skewers how the deliberate acts of elites indifferent to 99 percent of the global population will likely result in all of our deaths.
When we view “Dr. Strangelove,” a film that was released in 1964, we have the benefit of surviving the Cold War. The Americans and Soviets did not launch nukes against one another, though they were on the brink. But we have not survived the threat of climate change, and that deepens the gallows humor of “Don’t Look Up.”
The characters of “Don’t Look Up” are less caricature than the characters of “Dr. Strangelove. The elites of “Don’t Look Up” eerily resemble those in our own world. They probably had to be more grounded or else the high-concept narrative would not work.
Corporate, media, and political elites infest our screens and deny us progress on the most pressing matters of life and death. They have too much wealth and power to be disappeared or brushed aside.
No matter what we do, they will have a say in the course of action we take to save or not save the planet. Or worse, they will choose a plan for “saving” the planet that enriches them first and foremost, even if it has a diminished chance of success. That may be the most chilling part of “Don’t Look Up.”
The dark comedy is not limited to any zinger or one line of dialogue uttered by a character. It is not simply bits of slapstick or screwball humor strung together to reflect the failure of the political class. Instead, the dark comedy is that old equation in the business: tragedy plus time.
Every day we proceed on the disastrous trajectory chosen by elites satirized in the film, “Don’t Look Up” will exist as a mirror that reflects how we brought our species closer and closer to extinction. This will heighten the comedy.
We will probably laugh less and less as each year goes by, and at a certain point, we will think the film is laughing at us if nothing fundamentally changes.