Why do viewers like the Adam McKay movie more than critics do?
It’s official–Don’t Look Up was the big hit of the holiday season. Or at least it is on Netflix, where the disaster satire has been leading all other Netflix films in nearly every single country for the last week. The theatrical release of Don’t Look Up two weeks ago had a much chillier reception though, to the disappointment of many. It seemed like an obvious Oscar contender. The movie comes courtesy of Adam McKay, already a critical darling for such movies as The Big Short, about the 2008 Financial Crisis, and Vice, about the notorious former vice president Dick Cheney.
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With stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence headlining, with Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill in prominent supporting roles, and socially conscious subject matter about science denialism, Don’t Look Up seemed perfectly poised to take awards season by storm. So what happened? With the more perplexing question being, why is this movie so much more popular with viewers than it was with critics?
Well, in the first place, Don’t Look Up has the tremendous advantage of just literally being watchable at all. It’s available for free to anyone with a Netflix subscription. We’re at the time of year when all the big media outlets are publishing their best of year movie summaries and as usual, normal people have to run searches about which of these movies are available on a subscriber platform. Don’t Look Up, if nothing else, definitively proves that accessibility is far more important than critical approval to a movie’s actual relevance. Hardly anyone had even heard of this movie two weeks ago, despite the fact that in theory nearly everyone had access to it.
The second reason is much more nuanced and gets into the movie’s actual subject matter. Which is, to the movie’s credit, easily summarized. Jennifer Lawrence is a PhD candidate at Michigan State who discovers a comet. Leonardo DiCaprio is her attending professor. Before too long, they realize that this very large comet, larger than the one that killed the dinosaurs, we’re told, is on a collision course with Earth. They go to the White House, which keeps them waiting a disturbingly long time waiting given the nature of the crisis situation, and pettily charges them cash money for snacks while they wait.
Despite the obvious farce in that running gag, Don’t Look Up is quite restrained considering Adam McKay’s usual style. The only joke he explicitly explains (Big Short style) is that yes, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office is real, and he didn’t make it up just for the movie. But for the most part Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence just take diverging paths on how to deal with the extinction event, both of them proving equally useless, since Meryl Streep’s presidential character is the only one with any actual authority.
President Orlean, by the way, is at the heart of just why there’s been such bitter dispute over the artistic merit of Don’t Look Up. The latter acts of the movie unsubtly suggest that she’s a Donald Trump-style caricature. The movie’s title is the catchphrase of MAGA-style rallies wherein gullible attendees are encouraged “don’t look up” at the comet which is now visible in the sky.
Yet earlier scenes imply President Orlean to be a liberal, or at least someone with suitably vague political motivations. Take the establishing shot of a photo featuring Bill Clinton on her desk in the Oval Office. Or how both she and her obviously unqualified Chief of Staff son deride our lead characters for coming from a state school–not exactly something undereducated right-wingers consider to be a deal-breaker. But until we get to the comet denialism’s explicit anti-Trump swipes, the liberal interpretation is the obvious dominant one.
Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the movie. After blowing the scientists off for political reasons, President Orlean changes her mind, also for political reasons, and comes up with a serious plan to stop the comet by changing its trajectory. This plan goes awry when a tech CEO played by Mark Rylance with incredibly weird and offputting Jordan Peterson affectations comes up with a riskier, more ridiculous plan to mine the asteroid for rare minerals by splitting it up into smaller pieces diverted toward a less-dangerous controlled landing onto Earth.
You can probably guess where that’s going. But my point is, President Orlean isn’t really a Trump caricature. She’s any random politician who simply doesn’t take a crisis seriously, except for the parts that they can manipulate for personal benefit. And you can probably guess why this has been rubbing critics, a group that trends liberal, the wrong way. It’s all well and good to mock the government’s disaster response capabilities when Donald Trump is President, and you can easily blame mismanagement on his game-show style persona.
But it’s quite another to have an attitude like that when Democrats control the Presidency as well as Congress–and the country’s response to COVID-19 doesn’t appear to have actually improved. President Biden himself accidentally personified this entire cultural moment when he admitted that in a teleconference with various state governors on December 27th that there’s no actual federal response to COVID-19 at this point. The federal policy is just to back up whatever the state policies are. No amount of contextualizing this statement can erase the fact that when President Trump made an almost identical remark in 2020, not only the media excoriated him, but also Joe Biden himself, then his rival in the presidential election.
The great irony of Don’t Look Up’s latter descent into comet denialism as an obvious analogy for either climate change denialism or COVID-19 denialism is that whether people actually believe in the comet makes absolutely no difference whatsoever. Our leaders come up with the plans. It’s hard to tell whether President Orlean has an actual reason for supporting comet denialism or if that subplot is just an artifact of another draft of the script, but on a textual level comet denialism simply doesn’t matter. It’s a meaningless distraction.
You know what else doesn’t matter? Media awareness campaigns. Where the media lauds Leonardo DiCaprio’s scientist as, well, as a scientist who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio, his message of believing in the comet’s importance accomplishes nothing. It treats Jennifer Lawrence having a legitimate existential crisis over the impending doom of the planet as an attitude problem. The movie rather hilarious skewers importance of self-care. It’s a means to condescendingly dismiss the very real concerns of people that life, as we know, is going to end.
Manohla Dargis in The New York Times in her review attacked Don’t Look Up for leaning in to sexist tropes in its portrayal of President Orlean. Yet she completely missed that movie presents the dismissal of Lawrence’s character for much more obviously misogynist hysterical woman reasons as an indictment of the media at large. For that matter, it skewers The New York Times itself as irrelevant, with the in-continuity equivalent, The New York Herald, completely failing to properly put the extinction level event in proper perspective while impotently offering media training to our horrified lead characters.
Dargis’ review is far from an outlier. In general critics have very conspicuously avoided actually addressing the premise of Don’t Look Up, instead criticizing it for, of all things, being too preachy. This feels like a message from a different decade. We’re supposed to celebrate mainstream superhero movies for representation, but a widely-distributed widely-watched climate change satire is going too far because…it doesn’t have enough consistent laughs? How far we’ve come from the golden age of Dr. Strangelove.
What makes this especially absurd is that Don’t Look Up itself satirizes the idea that informed social commentary has to or should require light humor. Climate scientists have heaped praise on the movie. As they see it, Don’t Look Up effectively expresses their personal experience and calls attention to the very real problems faced by our political leadership in terms of perverse incentives in the face of existential crisis, and the impossibility of truly getting the word out in this difficult media landscape.
The irony of this disconnect is palpable. The media happily blames just about everyone except themselves for us not considering climate change a major political priority, despite their being the only institution of public life capable of communicating this. And now that a mainstream movie has called them out on this, all of a sudden it’s not that important we listen to climate scientists (on this one specific issue) after all.
All of this discourse has been engaging stuff. Don’t Look Up is fun to talk about even if you disagree with its premise. That film critics haven’t done so has been a sad, sorry indictment of the profession–and a suitably ironic vindication of the movie’s themes. Don’t Look Up may not offer any solutions, but at least it doesn’t engage in magical thinking about how we can solve our problems. And that kind of message is infuriating for a class of people who genuinely believe that you can trace every problem in the United States today back to The Other Guy. Such scapegoating, is, incidentally, an important theme in McKay’s 2010 film The Other Guys. But that’s a lot less fun when the satire is aiming at you personally, and not the people who you’re smugly convinced are wrong.