Don’t Look Up film review: Very well worth looking up

·4-min read
 (NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)
(NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)

Adam McKay’s sci-fi satire, which is about a mega-comet hurtling towards us, moves at an agonisingly slow pace and seems in no way earth-shattering. At first. Luckily, that changes and a cast of A-listers, (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Timothée Chalamet), prove solid as a rock. At the risk of over-extending this metaphor and exposing my ignorance re comets (who knew they were completely different from meteors and asteroids? Er, everyone else), I’m just going to say it: Don’t Look Up makes a surprisingly deep impact.

Gutsy astronomy student Dr Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence; sporting a brutal fringe) notices the comet and realises it will hit Earth in roughly six months. She shares the information with her anxious professor, Dr Randall Mindy (DiCaprio, hiding his beautiful face behind an outrageously pubic-looking beard). When they and a colleague, Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), attempt to alert the White House to this shocking news, the trio discover that protecting the public is not a top priority for President Janie Orlean (Streep).

After a make-over that sees Randall repackaged as a “sexy scientist”, he, Kate, and Teddy become part of a media campaign that encourages citizens of the world to pay attention to the sky, much to Janie’s disgust. The POTUS and her arrogant son, Jason (Jonah Hill), along with Janie’s wealthy, Elon Musk-like businessman ally Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) - attack scientists for supposedly looking down on average folks. Janie’s mantra: “Don’t look up.”

Janie has much in common with Veep’s Selina Meyer, yet it’s only once Kate and Randall encounter the immaculate, lascivious, casually conservative talk-show host Brie (Cate Blanchett) that McKay’s writing becomes worthy of Armando Iannucci. Via Brie, we realise that no one, inside the privacy of their own head, views themselves as a caricature. Where Kate sees Brie as a frozen-faced witch, Brie sees herself as a racy, Carole Lombard-style free spirit. The script, and Blanchett’s performance, allow us to see Brie from all angles and the amorous/awkward interactions between Brie and Randall are a joy.

Timothée Chalamet’s Yule is nice but dim (NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)
Timothée Chalamet’s Yule is nice but dim (NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)

So are the scenes between Kate and Timothée Chalamet’s Yule. The latter is an apparently nihilistic emo punk who admires Kate’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude. Chalamet’s normally lustrous hair is so greasy in this movie, that he looks like a woebegone Womble. It’s also bracing to see him cast as a nice but dim Joe Schmoe. Chalamet – synonymous with angsty princelings – is McKay’s flexible friend.

That said, of all the odd-couples in this movie Janie and Peter are the most memorable. Their intimacy is platonic, but creepily intense. She’s a manic extrovert, he’s a serene and almost certainly autistic introvert (he has sensory issues and, at one point, sniffs her shoulders). Hopefully this will be the first of many film collaborations for Streep and Rylance, because they’re a scrumptious combo.

Meryl Streep and Mark Rylance are a joy to watch together (NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)
Meryl Streep and Mark Rylance are a joy to watch together (NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX)

Peter, by the way, is part of a 21st century trend that’s been especially pronounced in 2021. Neurodivergent characters now routinely dominate mainstream and indie movies, whether as villains, heroes or something in between (see Phoebe in Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Peter in The Power of the Dog). It’s a cultural revolution. And about time, too.

Adults who grew up with Dr. Strangelove and/or Network will love the way McKay updates and tweaks those iconic epics. And a certain kind of teen will be transported by the presence of Ariana Grande. The pop star, playing a pop star, sings an earnest anthem that functions both as a sly pastiche of such things AND a rousing polemic. And she does it while wearing an outfit that resembles a globule of beaten egg whites. What a woman.

As for the final scenes, they serve up a rainbow-hued hell-scape (think Hieronymus Bosch, on magic mushrooms) that really needs to be seen on the big screen. Is that Streep’s actual naked bottom or a CGI apparition? All I can tell you is that, though Don’t Look Up has a modest budget, the money spent has been used wisely.

McKay won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Big Short. His new film’s too daffy to impress Academy voters, but, real news alert, it’s totally worth looking up.

145mins, cert 15

In selected cinemas from December 10, then on Netflix from December 24

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