Review of Don’t Look Up (2021)

Moving picture, 138 minutes

Seen in 2021.

Two astronomers discover a hitherto unknown comet coming in out of the Oort cloud, measuring 5–10 km across. They calculate that, unless averted, it will directly impact the Earth in six months. Experts predict that the impact will be equivalent to the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. The two astronomers spend the six months trying to raise the political will to do anything about the problem.

A satire and a fruitful union of Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) with Wag the Dog (1997). The ensemble cast is mostly good. Ron Perlman’s character looks to have been cut down to his disadvantage in an abortive parody of Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998), but Jonah Hill does a lovely parody of Donald Trump Junior. Rob Morgan’s deadpan Sting anecdote in answer to a running gag is just magnificent, and Mark Rylance brings an appropriately absurd elderly-Mister-Rogers, Michio-Kaku vibe to what would otherwise have been a clichéd parody of a Peter Thiel / Steve Jobs tech-billionaire type like Darius Tanz on Salvation (2017), one of the more recent straight-faced treatments of the giant-asteroid scenario.

For the satire, compare this more optimistic passage from Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), where a comet approaches the Earth:

Meantime the ordinary affairs of men were discarded, and all interests absorbed in a growing discussion, instituted by the philosophic, in respect to the cometary nature. Even the grossly ignorant aroused their sluggish capacities to such considerations. The learned now gave their intellect—their soul—to no such points as the allaying of fear, or to the sustenance of loved theory. They sought—they panted for right views. They groaned for perfected knowledge. Truth arose in the purity of her strength and exceeding majesty, and the wise bowed down and adored.

The opposite happens in Don’t Look Up, which is the point of the film. Ordinary affairs go on, there is no interest in philosophy, the “grossly ignorant” are misled by charlatans who allay their fears, and “the learned”, including Rylance’s character, believe what they want to believe, which Poe called “loved theory”. Curiosity for truth is almost dead, except among working scientists.

It is not a feature of the satire but a defect that this movie about the danger of spectacle over science is itself heavy on spectacle and low on science. The “comet” seems to be mostly rock rather than ice, it develops a tail surprisingly quickly, and it would not realistically be averted by nukes if it’s on a collision course; you’d probably need a bunch of kinetic impactors and it’d be really dumb to launch all of them at once from the same site, for the reasons shown—but ignored by planners—in this film. It’s a lot more accurate than Poe was in the 1830s, but even “Destiny” (1995) is better at discussing the difficulty of deflecting a comet. Realism with respect to the physical threat would have made the famously anxiety-inducing dimension of the narrative more powerful, which would have helped the pandemic/climate-change allegory too.

moving picture fiction