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Movies & TV

31st Dec 2021

The discourse around Don’t Look Up is funnier than the movie itself

Rory Cashin

Rarely has a film this average inspired this much conversation.

If you’re not part of the Film Twitter-sphere, then you’re missing out on one of the biggest (and accidentally funny) arguments of the year.

Let us get all caught up:

Director and co-writer Adam McKay has moved away from the big, broad comedies he was previously best known for (Anchorman, Step Brothers), re-aiming towards topical, incisively funny dramas that end up getting quite a bit of Oscar attention (The Big Short, Vice).

He then released Don’t Look Up in selected cinemas on 10 December, ahead of its full release on Netflix on Christmas Day. The star-packed comedy-drama (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep all feature) about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, but the majority of the planet seem to be pretty apathetic to their incoming fate.

It is a not-very-subtle metaphor for global warming, and the film was … fine.

Clip via Netflix

Critics more or less shrugged at the movie’s arrival, as it landed with a thud of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, a totally reasonable score for a comedy that isn’t particularly funny. It is fair to say that we all expected better (it landed on JOE’s most disappointing movies of 2021 list), but on to the next one, we’ll always be excited to see what McKay and this talented cast will do next.

But this is where it starts to get funny.

The Internet starts defending the movie, in a most fervent manner. Probably to be expected from any project featuring the likes of Ariana Grande, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Timothée Chalamet, all of whom have bunkered-down fanbases on social media who are willing to defend their icons to the bitter end, regardless of the quality of the project in question.

But it doesn’t stop there: the movie started being defended by scientists. The Guardian publishes a piece titled ‘I’m a climate scientist. Don’t Look Up captures the madness I see every day’, which is a sight less provocative than what Forbes went with: ‘Why Sneering Critics Dislike Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, But Climate Scientists Love It’.

Apparently because critics didn’t like the movie because it made for “uncomfortable viewing”. Many films have been made about very uncomfortable topics and have ended up being named the best movies of the year they were released: 12 Years A Slave, Spotlight and Parasite all immediately come to mind.

The problem is that yes, it was uncomfortable, but not because of the topic, but because it was a comedy that wasn’t very funny or particularly interesting. There are fleeting glimpses of decent comedy (usually involving Jonah Hill, who feels ported over from one of McKay’s “older” films), but the message of the film seems to be: We should do something about this problem.

The running joke is about inaction – another article by The Guardian points this out quite well – and that is all well and good, but inaction, as a concept, isn’t a particularly funny target. It can be a source of frustration for sure, hence so many scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Jennifer Lawrence screaming into the camera, but frustration and comedy don’t always mix well.

It takes a certain kind of tonal balancing act – see: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic nuclear war comedy Dr. Strangelove, or Armando Iannucci’s Iraq invasion comedy In The Loop – to pull it off, but it is one that Don’t Look Up does not possess.

It has resulted in so much discourse – a lot of it aimed directly at movie critics – that it has overtaken discussing the contents of the film itself.

This is a film that has not one but TWO post-credit scenes (like in a Marvel movie!), and stops the drama dead in its tracks to have Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi perform an entire song. If the point of the movie was to alert more people to an impending apocalypse, why spend so much of the movie’s runtime focusing on DiCaprio’s fling with TV host Cate Blanchett?


It is also important to remember that Don’t Look Up isn’t the first “blockbuster” to tackle climate change.

The Day After Tomorrow, Waterworld, Snowpiercer, Wall-E and Geostorm have come and gone, but because they were filled with explosions and not your favourite actor/singer, then nobody really came rushing to their defence when some critics didn’t like them.

Just to clarify: it is possible to agree with the message of a movie and not agree that the movie itself is any good.

However, there is one good outcome from all of this: more people are now talking about the inaction represented in the movie, which actually might result in more reaction than the movie itself.

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