that’s right, it’s a movie review

I sporadically read movie and/or television reviews. I don’t necessarily trust entertainment reviewers, but I tend to assume they get it approximately right. Maybe they don’t point to true north, but they wave in a general northish direction. The reviews of Don’t Look Up were harsh; I saw it described as glib, as disastrous, as unamusing, as obvious and without subtlety, as over-the-top, as trivializing an actual social problem, as cynical and mocking. Reviewers said Don’t Look Up failed both as satire and as comedy.

But sometimes all I want is mindless, distracting entertainment–something glib and trivial and obvious. Besides, there were a lot of really fine actors in it, so how bad could it be?

I won’t say Don’t Look Up is a great movie; it’s not. But it’s not at all what the reviewers claimed it was. It’s not mindless entertainment; it’s not glib or trivializing or without subtlety. It’s a damned fine movie. It IS over-the-top, but considering the last few years, it’s only over the top by inches.

With only the tiniest possible SPOILER, I’m going to tell you what the movie is about. I’m not going to relate the entire plot; I’m only going to reveal one plot element (which you probably already know). But I’m going to describe what I think is the pivotal scene. It takes place fairly early in the film, and it establishes the theme on which the movie depends.

Three people–a grad student who discovers a comet heading directly toward earth, the professor who oversees her research, and a government official who heads some obscure agency devoted to protecting Earth from comets and/or other space stuff–are at the White House with a high-ranking military escort. They’re there to warn the president of the impending extinction level event. POTUS is busy doing political bullshit, so they’re left idling in a hallway. The escort leaves briefly and returns with bottled water and some snacks. He complains about how expensive the snacks were. The others reimburse him–US$20. He keeps the change. Later, the grad student (played by Jennifer Lawrence with unfortunate hair) discovers the snacks and water were free. Periodically through the rest of the film, she talks about how astonished she was that this guy screwed them for a few bucks when they were at the White House trying to warn humanity that all life on the planet is likely going to be extinguished. She just can’t understand people who act that way.

And that’s the movie. Good, decent people trying to do what’s right, trying to do what’s best for everybody, trying to deal with a system designed for–and occupied by–people primarily concerned with themselves and their own gain, people who are willing to lie, mislead, and manipulate others to achieve their short term goals. It’s not just that they have incompatible value systems; it’s that they don’t even share the same definition of values.

It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s satire. Sort of. Actually, I’m damned if I know what genre it falls into. It’s a critique of the politico-corporate culture we live in, where maximizing profits and shareholder value have priority over human concerns. It’s a critique of the social media driven culture in which celebrity is valued over knowledge and manipulated opinion trumps science. All of that sounds very dull, doesn’t it; but this is not a dull movie.

In the end, I found Don’t Look Up to be weirdly hopeful. It suggests that trying to do good, trying to do the right thing, is in itself a worthy goal, even if you don’t believe you can succeed. It suggests a person’s sincere attempt to do what’s right confers a sort of grace on the person. I like to think that’s true.

Don’t Look Up is worth watching.

EDITORIAL NOTE: By the way, this is one of the few films in which scientists are depicted as normal people who are simply devoted to science. Nerdy, perhaps, but ordinary.

Melanie Lynskey

Also? The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, who has a brilliantly quiet career playing strong, soft-spoken women; she deserves a lot more attention than she gets. It’s a small role, but she’s perfect in it. She knows how to throw a pill bottle and make it sting.

7 thoughts on “that’s right, it’s a movie review

  1. I really have to disagree with you on this one. I thought it was a stumbling, aimless, shrill attempt at satire that aimed solely for the low-hanging fruit. All the things above that you say it was – a politico-corporate satire, a critique of social media driven culture – it sure _wanted_ to be, but it was such a ham-fisted execution of those things.

    I saw it with high hopes. From the trailer I thought the premise was funny, and I even laughed at the jokes, but at about a third the way through the movie itself, I realised that the trailer was all I was going to get. For nearly 2 and a half hours.

    I saw the movie pretty quickly off the release, so I didn’t read any of the negative reviews (or any reviews for that matter) so I wasn’t primed by them, but I find myself totally agreeing with Roger Ebert on this one: ““Don’t Look Up” thinks it’s pushing many savvy political buttons, when it’s only pointing out the obvious and the easy, over and over.”

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    • First, let me say I always enjoy it when people disagree with me intelligently…and a lot of folks have disagreed with me on this movie.

      One of the most common complaints about the movie is that folks feel it depicts the masses as stupid. I didn’t see it that way. What I saw was a system of political and media entities designed to distract and manipulate the masses, to muddy up the very notion of objective truth. Just as there are intelligent people who’ve been manipulated to believe Covid is a hoax, the movie showed intelligent people manipulated to believe first, the comet wasn’t a threat and later to believe monetizing it–and accepting limited, localized catastrophes–would be good for the economy.

      It’s my opinion (and I admit I could be wrong and this could be nothing more than wishful thinking) that a lot of folks focused on what was obvious and over-the-top in the movie, and failed to notice what was really going on. Which sort of mirrors what’s actually taking place in the US. We see the buffoonery and are distracted from the deeper and more insidious systemic degradation of democracy.

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      • Personally, I would say that it depicts everyone as stupid, in one way or another. Either stupid or greedy.

        I totally ‘got’ what the movie was trying to do. I most certainly did not fail to understand the allegory. For me, that was the exact problem – the allegory was banal and obvious, and smacked right into your face in the first five minutes, then it didn’t let up until the last frame, with no further illumination or development. It was a one-note idea.

        As I said to someone yesterday: in a world where the President of the United States can publicly suggest people shoot up with bleach, where his son opines to a Christian audience that maybe Jesus’s teaching to ‘turn the other cheek’ isn’t relevant anymore, where wildfires are started by Jewish ‘space lasers’ and where Kanye West can say he might run for President and people take him seriously, satire has to reach for something more substantial. It just can’t ape reality and expect to succeed.

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      • I would say that it depicts everyone as stupid, in one way or another. Either stupid or greedy.

        I think this is our main area of disagreement.

        There’s a scene that takes place at a Don’t Look Up rally in which a random character DOES look up…and sees the comet. He says something like, “What’s that?” Others in the rally look up, see the comet, and realize they’ve been lied to. They get angry and start to riot, throwing stuff at the stage. To me, that shows the people aren’t stupid; they’re just susceptible to manipulation and wishful thinking.

        We see that same moment of realization from some (not all, sadly) Covid patients who are on ventilators and begin to think maybe getting vaxxed was a good idea, that maybe they shouldn’t have listened to Covid deniers. Some of those people are just stupid, but a lot of them are just easily manipulated and eager to believe what they want to believe.

        You say the movie was “a one-note idea” and I mostly agree with that. But I don’t think we agree on what that idea is.

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  2. Well I gotta say it entertained me no end. In a time when finding *anything* worth watching is a slog through a field of shit, I actually really enjoyed this film. Laughed my ass off; didn’t know about any of the reviews before I saw it, I found it on Christmas Eve and said yeah, let’s. I thought it got the message across in a funny, and strangely sweet way. OK I wish the writing had been a bit better; but I’m very easy to please these days. And I love watching the actors at work too. They did justice to their parts.

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  3. I have to agree with @anaglyph overall, but I must also confess my excitement at reading your article – you singled out EXACTLY the same things I would have talked about if I could be bothered, considering that I find this movie horribly lame and underwhelming. The general who charges for snacks, the bad hair on J.L., and the simple yet credible and well done part by Melanie Lyksley (I didn’t know her name, but recognized her from other productions). In addition, I have to say I would promote a law that strips on Oscar off of Meryl for the hideously role, and that never before have I been more disappointed with Blanchett. Also, as a dentist, I resent the fake teeth they put on her and Rylance. That’s about all, I’ll see myself out :D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Crina. If we all agreed on everything, life would be pretty dull. I’m actually fascinated by how polarizing this movie is…how even folks who found it lame and underwhelming still have strong opinions about it. And I love that those opinions extend to all aspects of the movie–from the plot to the themes to the acting to the costume design to the quality of the acting to the science underlying the plot to Cate Blanchett’s American accent.

      It’s not a great movie, but it’s got people talking.

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