The Real Message Behind “Don’t Look Up”
Released just before Christmas on Netflix, Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” instantly became the most talked about movie of 2021. The professional film critics immediately weighed in, mostly with unfavorable reviews. By the following week, the reviews were being reviewed. “Don’t Look Up” had taken on the status of an event rather than a piece of entertainment or a work of art.
The reason for this curious phenomenon, similar to what occurred for the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” 55 years ago, lies in the fact that, while capturing the mood of an epoch focused on the very real possibility of the collapse of civilization, as a work of art, the movie is visibly flawed in a number of ways that no professional critic could ignore. Given McKay’s track record and the star power he brought together in the case, the critics felt that the film failed to live up to its advertised promise.
Is Oprah the Most Influential Person Ever?
When the viewership statistics began appearing, the disconnect between critical assessment and the public’s appreciation became flagrant. “Don’t Look Up” broke the record for Netflix viewership for a new release. The gap in judgment between the critics and the public itself became a topic for discussion in the media.
Some may see this as a demonstration of the inexorable loss of prestige of movie reviewers in the era of social media. Once respected pillars of popular journalism, most consumers now see cinema critics as irrelevant. This has something to do with the ambiguity of cinema itself. Traditionally consumed in a dark movie theater as a collective experience amid a responsive audience, most people now watch their movies at home on television. The distinction between movies and TV has become increasingly blurred.
Getting Talked About
No one doubts that audiences were drawn to the film principally through the appeal of the star-studded cast featuring, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ariana Grande and Cate Blanchett. But there may be another cultural factor that complements the roster of stars: the power of the traditional and non-traditional news media. That includes the uncountable bevy of pundits on social media. Commentary on the news has become another form of entertainment, thanks in part to its much lower production costs than Hollywood movies.
Once the critics had done their job, most outlets in the US treated the film’s release and reception as a news story in and of itself. The media began talking about the movie, no longer in terms of its artistic success or failure, but as a kind of psy-op designed to sensitize the public to the urgency of combating climate change. Anyone with access to Netflix felt obliged to watch it.
By becoming not only a much-viewed work of entertainment but more significantly an object of endless discussion in the media, the movie achieved the director’s real goal: getting talked about. The attention the media is still giving “Don’t Look Up,” weeks after its Netflix release, reveals more about the state of US culture than it does about the movie itself. It highlights the paradox, specifically targeted in the movie’s satire, of the public’s addiction to the media’s blather and its growing distrust of all institutions, including the very media to which the public is addicted.
Were the Critics Right?
In the case of “Bonnie and Clyde,” released in 1967, Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern “initially panned [the movie], only to come back and proclaim it (wisely) a great movie,” according to David Ansen (a later Newsweek critic and a friend of mine). Morgenstern penned a second review celebrating Penn’s accomplishment. I’m not sure I agree with David about it being a great movie, but “Bonnie and Clyde” became such a popular success that Morgenstern had to sit down and rethink the cultural conditions that made it, if not a great movie, then at least a movie for its time. And what a time it was! 1967 is remembered as the year of the “summer of love,” a propitious moment for any cultural artifact that could be perceived as being “for its time.” More significantly, “Bonnie and Clyde” became a trend-setter for the next generation of filmmakers.
Can we compare our era with the ebullition of the sixties? Can “Don’t Look Up” pretend to be the “Bonnie and Clyde” of the 21st century? Because of COVID-19 and Donald Trump, 2020 and 2021 may be remembered by future generations as two years as significant as 1967, 1968 (assassinations of MLK and RFK, “mai 68”) or 1969 (Woodstock). Then again, future generations may simply remember these two years as a period of gradual but certain decline marked by a debilitating indifference to the impending crisis that “Don’t Look Up” wants us to respond to.
McKay intended “Don’t Look Up” to be a satire. The mood of the movie is clearly satirical, but some critics noticed that the plot and characterization easily broke the mood, slipping dangerously at times into parody. True satire treats a serious subject seriously before introducing the elements of ironic perspective that subtly or unsubtly undermine the characters’ pretention of seriousness. For a director, this means controlling both the timing and the gap between the sober and the comic.
Hollywood satire, which always employs humor, has traditionally fallen into two broad categories: dramatic and comic. The Marx Brothers were specialized in comic satire. It achieved its effects through immediate exaggeration of recognizable social behaviors, almost always including the relationship between a woman from the American upper class (Margaret Dumont), an upstart male gold digger (Groucho) and a penniless southern European immigrant trying to make it in WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) America (Chico).
In this Marxian (rather than Marxist) world, the three brothers in real life represented three different types of cultural marginality. Chico’s character comprised both Italians and Jews; the mute Harpo represented an extreme form of marginality, combining the handicapped and the poet (and natural musician). He even had his place in the poor black community (Harpo’s “Who dat man?” in “A Day at the Races”). All three of the Marx Brothers embodied, in contrasting ways, characters bent on destabilizing a self-satisfied majority that could neither understand them nor integrate them into their putative order. The very existence of the three non-conformists challenged the legitimacy of the institutions they interacted with.
Comic vs. Dramatic Satire
The Marx Brothers may have produced raucous comedy intended to provoke non-stop laughter, but their humor was built on a foundation of social satire. Audiences didn’t necessarily think about it in that way. They didn’t exit the movie theater reflecting deeply on the presumption, injustice and cluelessness of the ruling class. But the worlds and situations the Marx Brothers interacted with skewered a range of institutional targets: political and military (“Duck Soup”), academic (“Horsefeathers”), the arts (“A Night at the Opera”) or even medical (“A Day at the Races”). In so doing, they subtly altered the audience’s perception of the class system in the US and some of its most prestigious institutions. All of these movies appeared during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Like Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Marx Brothers created parallel worlds, clearly differentiated from our own, in which recognizable social and transactional behavior became exaggerated to the point of producing immediate comic effects that highlighted the illogic and even injustice of the real world. Like the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy produced variants on the same principle of comic satire. Each created and gave life to distinctive marginal personalities, at odds with respectable society and usually defeated by it.
Dramatic satire has in common with comic satire the aim of making its points by producing laughter. But it follows a radically different set of rules. Instead of throwing absurdity straight in the face of the audience by staging wildly exaggerated behavior designed to challenge and upset the veneer of seriousness attributed to what is presented as “normal society,” dramatic satire first takes the time to create the audience’s belief in a realistic situation that will later be challenged by an unexpected event or external force. It turns around an anomaly that erupts to provoke reactions from a range of characters unprepared for the surprise.
In other words, dramatic satire gives deadpan seriousness a head start. It is the gap between the nature of the anomalous event and the quality of the characters’ reaction that produces what comes across not as the pretext for a joke, but as unintentional humor. In the history of cinema, the most perfect example of dramatic satire — and the most appropriate to compare with “Don’t Look Up” — is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Dr. Strangelove” or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” the archetypal doomsday satire. McKay was acutely aware of that when he made “Don’t Look Up.”
Kubrick’s drama literally turns around the plot device of a Soviet “doomsday machine” that, if triggered, will destroy human life on the surface of the earth. The plot begins in total seriousness, like any dramatic movie. The key to its brilliance as satire is the gradual pace at which the exaggerated behavior of some of the characters unfolds. Playing their designated roles to the hilt, the politicians and generals become overtly comic when they go one step (and sometimes two or three) beyond what is reasonable.
There are several points in the first third of the movie where it becomes apparent to the viewer that they are watching a comedy. But this happens gradually and only through significant, but credible details in the dialogue, such as Brigadier General Ripper’s obsession with “purity of essence.” As the plot develops, at key moments, the comedy can erupt at the highest level of absurdity, as when President Muffley interjects: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room.” Such absurdly comic moments emerge logically, without ever undermining the fundamentally dramatic plot structure as it builds toward a final crescendo that will be followed by an instantaneous release.
Adam McKay’s Compromise
McKay’s script attempts to respect the same principle of dramatic satire as “Dr. Strangelove.” The initial scenes reveal the introverted scientist (DiCaprio) and his research student (Lawrence) making the disquieting discovery of a comet certain to strike the earth within half a year. The impending catastrophe is fully confirmed before the audience can get a reasonable feeling for the characters. That is the movie’s first glaring flaw. The apparent tension seems unjustified. The audience doesn’t yet care enough about the characters to start seriously worrying about whether they or the earth they (and we) stand on will survive the comet’s assault.
A quick transition leads us to the corridors of the White House in Washington, DC. We spend some time with the troubled scientists who are kept waiting before meeting President Orlean (Meryl Streep). She turns out to be a clever composite of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. There’s even a gratuitous hint of a link to Barack Obama, the secret smoker.
The characters in “Dr. Strangelove” are each given the time to appear as reasonable, conscientious, professionally competent human beings. Their irrationality and moral failure only appear as they attempt to deal with the impending threat. In contrast, “Don’t Look Up’s” president and colleagues are simply the embodiments of the algorithm that now dominates US politics, aimed at winning elections. This is where the mood of the movie moves from satire to parody.
We then move to New York where a serious news bureau modeled after The New York Times and a daytime TV interview show demonstrate the same algorithmic principle predicated this time essentially on optimizing ratings. At this point, the spectacle of increasingly trivial behavior by all the establishment parties definitively takes over.
What follows is a dynamically edited series of acts and scenes that riff on the gap between the serious intentions of the scientists and the endless venality and psychological triviality of politicians, entertainers and techno-capitalists. The specific critique of institutions and the media is usually on target. But it too often appears to be an exercise of making fun of what is visible every day in our media simply by duplicating its most consistent behaviors.
The Difficulty of Satirizing Hyperreality
In other words, McKay’s parody suffers from the already hyperreal nature of what it seeks to critique. The culture it puts on display, already accessible in today’s media, is too recognizable and predictable, in a certain sense, too true to (hyperreal) life. It may be a thankless task to try for comic effect by further exaggerating anything in the real world that is already so exaggerated in its triviality and cynical efficiency that on its own it tends to be laughable. McKay ends up faithfully reproducing a world that, through its media, endlessly parodies itself.
That may be what made the critics feel uncomfortable. The actors do their best to parody what it already a parody. The movie rarely achieves the sense of queasy discomfort satire normally seeks to inspire. “Dr. Strangelove” does so by slowly building that discomfort to a fever pitch. Kubrick shows his characters thinking, strategizing, trying to adapt to an unusual situation. McKay’s characters too often appear to be reading from a script. We never get the impression that they are grappling with anything. Instead, they are playing out their algorithmically determined roles.
Perhaps the real lesson, worth being talked about, from “Don’t Look Up” is that in a world so dominated by the hyperreality projected not just by our media but also by our politicians, technology gurus and even academics, true satire is no longer possible. When the media reaches the level of superficiality and sheer venality that it has achieved today, as revealed in every scene of “Don’t Look Up,” the link to reality in today’s culture is too tenuous for effective political satire to be produced.
Hollywood Satire and Contemporary History
Over the past century, Hollywood has produced many successful and indeed unforgettable satires. They fall into a variety of styles and with a wide range of comic techniques. “Duck Soup” (Marx Brothers), “Blazing Saddles” (Mel Brooks), “M*A*S*H”(Robert Altman), “Mulholland Drive” (David Lynch) and many others stand as great Hollywood satires that achieved their effect by creating largely unbelievable frameworks that become believable by virtue of the director’s control of exaggeration, coupled with the capacity to build a coherent intricacy of contrasts and conflicts in the plotting.
“Don’t Look Up” never quite makes up its mind about whether it wishes to embrace “Dr. Strangelove’s” focused drama or the liberated wackiness of Mel Brooks. That may be why the critics found it to be an unsatisfying hybrid. In its defense, however, we should recognize — and future generations should note — that it does stand as an effective parody of the most predictable behavior of public figures incapable of responding to an existential crisis because they have been programmed according to a different set of algorithmic rules. For that reason, the film should be considered a resounding success. It has raised in the public forum the most troubling question concerning the climate crisis: that even our awareness of it cannot serve to find a solution. The system we are trying to save is built to resist anyone’s saving it.
For all its cinematic quality, brilliant humor and critical success, “Dr. Strangelove” had no immediate impact on the arms race. Still, it is worth noting that when Ronald Reagan was elected president, sixteen years after the movie’s release, as he was making the rounds of the federal government’s installations, upon visiting the Pentagon he “asked the chief of staff to show him the war room of Dr. Strangelove.” The Hollywood actor, who had spent plenty of time in his earlier career in sound studios, believed Kubrick’s set was real.
Reagan’s public anti-communist philosophy was not radically different from Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper’s as detailed in “Dr. Strangelove.” The man who, before his election, “had argued that the United States was falling behind the Soviets in the nuclear competition” personally initiated the negotiations that led to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), “the first treaty that required U.S. and Soviet/Russian reductions of strategic nuclear weapons.” Could it have been Reagan’s memory of the lessons of “Dr. Strangelove” that ultimately guided him towards that decision?
A Tale of Two Cold Wars
The original Cold War nuclear arms race Kubrick denounced in his movie is still going on to this day. Perhaps more than ever it can be triggered in a heartbeat. In contrast, climate change promises a slow agony, whose groans may already be discernible. America’s current president, Joe Biden, says he wants to rein it in but seems incapable of exercising any real leadership to achieve that goal.
At the time Kubrick was shooting “Dr. Strangelove,” John F. Kennedy was still president. In his first year of office, JFK called for the abolition of nuclear weapons “before they abolish us.” In the summer of 1963, he initiated the first nuclear test ban treaty. Four months later, he was successfully “abolished” himself in the streets of Dallas.
It appears clear now that, willingly or unwillingly, President Biden will accomplish little to limit the effects of climate change. Seeking to raise the stakes of the US rivalry with China and increasing the pressure on Russia over Ukraine in a spirit that sometimes resembles a new cold war, he has also made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of banishing nuclear weapons. In the first week of 2022, the White House affirmed the principle that “nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
The first cold war ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. The lesson of “Dr. Strangelove” no longer lives in any president’s memory. But can we suppose or perhaps even hope that a future president who happened to watch “Don’t Look Up” at the end of 2021 will, like Reagan, remember its message and dare, even decades later, to take some kind of serious action to address it? That seems unlikely. As President Orlean pointed out, unless the end of the world is scheduled to take place before the next presidential or midterm election, there are more important things to attend to.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.