I don’t often write about movies. The last few times were out of concern and offense.
That’s not the case this time. Don’t Look Up is an honorable accomplishment, brilliant in aspiration if not execution.
Bob Lefsetz may have summarized it best:
“Don’t judge the movie as a movie. Judge it as a cultural exposé.”
It’s not a great movie. It is an important movie.
It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It is a twisted, masterful mirror making it a profound movie.
It’s leafy green vegetables dipped lightly in ranch dressing, not a snack without compromise, but still good for you.
Most of the movies we see released these days are either popcorn tentpoles with superheroes meant to fill actual theaters, or esoteric art pieces that win awards but stream largely in obscurity.
What happened to issue-based, mainstream entertainment movies like The China Syndrome, Erin Brockovich, or Midnight Express? The bottom line finance culture running the studios couldn’t possibly come to terms with those kinds of bets today. Throw in a platform of satire, dark humor, or caustic irony like Dr. Strangelove or Network and the chance those movies get backed today approaches nil.
Today we would call greenlighting medium to high budget films like those a bad business decision, and we would probably be right. Yet there was a time not long ago when many of us experienced these releases as popular culture events. Perhaps the most important thing these flicks accomplished was to inspire conversation.
We might like or dislike the stories. We might accept or reject the message hurled at our psyches. We might enjoy or be bored to tears by the characters. We could agree or disagree with the premise. It was the very act of talking about them that made them worthwhile as events even when art and science failed.
I miss those discussions and debates a lot. They made me think about things differently, They opened my mind to different points of view. They helped me get to know people better, both interacting with strangers and close colleagues.
It doesn’t happen much anymore. Show business has changed too dramatically. The distribution landscape is too fragile. The stakes are too high to take these kinds of chances and wildly big swings. The entire approach seems of a bygone era.
Don’t Look Up took me back to that bygone era.
It’s a gutsy picture. It steps up to the plate and takes some bold, big swings,
What’s my idea of a bold, big swing?
How about a world-ending comet headed for the earth as a metaphor for apocalyptic climate change? That’s hardly a whiff.
How about Ariana Grande satirizing herself as an indictment of vacuous celebrity influencers? That’s a power at-bat.
How about the collective sensory assault of TikTok diluting an otherwise complex idea down to its own reductionist dismissal of gravitas? That’s taking a crack at a tough pitch.
Most of all, how about giving away the punchline in the title? How do we make something go away if we don’t want to believe it? Just don’t acknowledge it.
It’s that simple, and pardon the spoiler but it’s coming in this sentence… If you don’t believe a fiery killer projectile is headed for our planet and about to wipe out all life as we know it, just don’t look at it.
If you can’t see it, it’s not there.
If you wish to deny the imminence of a crisis, all you have to do is deny the possibility that it is coming.
Journalists certainly don’t matter, they are subjective. Scientists might matter even less, they are products of their bias. What you find on the internet that supports your point of view is all that matters. Belief is not empirical. All belief sets are valid points of view.
To put all that in a mainstream movie, think somehow it will be funny over two hours, pay a bunch of expensive movie stars to show up, and think this makes good business sense—there’s something wacky in that logic.
I wish I had laughed more throughout the movie. I wish some of it had been more subtle. I wonder how it will age when people watch it three or four decades from now. I am skeptical it will have the same dire resonance that I am attempting to express here regardless of its flaws.
Then I think back to the unforgettable dialogue of Peter Finch as Howard Beale that has been ringing in my head since my youth: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
I think about the decades of conversations I’ve had with people about those words and how much they’ve done to impact my interpretation of the weight of social issues still tearing at the fabric of modern living.
I think about how blessed we are that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky crafted those words and director Sidney Lumet got this movie to the screen for generations to ingest, discuss and debate.
I think about how long it’s been since I’ve had a satisfying conversation about an unequaled topic of global consequence triggered by a work of fiction.
The recent words ring solidly in mind: Don’t Look Up.
It’s anything but a perfect movie. It could be a lot more polished and funnier. Still, I think more people need to see it. And ingest it. And talk about it both with those who agree and disagree with its premise.
Thank you, Adam McKay. I think you’ve done something brave, needed, and important.