State of the arts

What goes up, must come down: Why it’s OK to hate Don’t Look Up

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence’s festive flick is the latest film to stoke the debate about critiquing art with serious themes. But you should be able to say when something’s rubbish, even if it is about the climate crisis, writes Louis Chilton

Sunday 02 January 2022 16:20
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<p>Setting a bad president: Meryl Streep as Janie Orlean in the Netflix climate satire ‘Don’t Look Up’ </p>

Setting a bad president: Meryl Streep as Janie Orlean in the Netflix climate satire ‘Don’t Look Up’

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In another life, Don’t Look Up could have really taken the world by storm. Film critics and cinephiles have spent years bemoaning the death of the studio comedy. Here was a movie that served as both – a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep that tackled what might be today’s most pressing issue: the global climate crisis. Don’t Look Up shot to the top of Netflix’s rankings after its Christmas Eve release and has been hailed by many in the scientific field for its right-minded messaging.

But not everyone was convinced of its greatness. Critically, the film went down like a flank steak at a vegan barbecue, currently holding a paltry 55 per cent rating on reviews site Rotten Tomatoes. The reason why is no great mystery. It’s just not very good. The Guardian described it as “laboured” and “self-conscious”. Rolling Stone called it “one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss” and “a disaster movie in more ways than one”. Many others were no kinder.

What’s interesting, however, is what came next: the backlash-to-the-backlash. Don’t Look Up’s fans and some of its creators this week took to social media to defend its dubious merits. This was a case of right vs wrong: virtuous environmentalists against the snooty critical elite. But moral conviction shouldn’t insulate any film from fair and honest criticism – least of all when that film is a broad and pugnacious comedy like this. If you were swinging the hatchet at An Inconvenient Truth, it would be reasonable to ask whether you had an agenda. If you hated Don’t Look Up, you’ve more likely just got a sense of humour.

There’s nothing in Don’t Look Up’s premise that’s particularly objectionable. For those that didn’t devour it over the festive period, the film focuses on a pair of astronomers (DiCaprio and Lawrence) who struggle in vain to convince the world of an impending catastrophe: a giant comet hurtling towards Earth. Impeding the planet’s salvation are a number of infuriating factors – a venal, scandal-hit and unmistakably Trump-ish president (Streep), a dispassionate tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) and the whole infrastructure of the US’s shallow news media, personified by talk show hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). It’s all perfectly well-meaning – but the execution is too broad and condescending. Streep is lousy, as is Rylance, whose calamitous, feathery performance seemed to beg his friends from the theatre world to stage an intervention. And for a comedy, perhaps its greatest offence is that there are almost no laughs. It’s no wonder the critics got up in arms.

The vast majority of people who watched Don’t Look Up will likely be blissfully unaware of this tedious discourse. For media obsessives, though, the last week has been a frantic tennis match of think pieces and dyspeptic tweets, the hot-take economy humming like the market floor at the end of Trading Places. Forbes, for instance, published a piece entitled “Why Sneering Critics Dislike Don’t Look Up, But Climate Scientists Love It”. The film’s story writer, David Sirota, waded into the debate, retweeting a piece called “Critics of Don’t Look Up Are Missing the Entire Point”, and declaring: “You’re not ‘smart’ by laughing at people trying to fix stuff...This culture of snark is part of what’s killing the world.”

The film’s director, Adam McKay, did the same. McKay was best known for his broad Noughties laugh-fests like Anchorman and Step Brothers before pivoting to overtly political pseudo-comedies like The Big Short and Vice. As an executive producer of Succession, he is partly responsible for the sharpest TV satire – and the best series, period – in years. But after Don’t Look Up’s critical castigation, he came out swinging, writing: “If you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story.”

The thing is, film critics are not supposed to assess a film’s moral worth. They are simply supposed to judge it as a piece of art or entertainment. Entirely right-minded and worthy films can also be terribly made, just as great films can sometimes bear problematic elements. It’s not an either/or situation, mind. Jaws was a film that eloquently conveyed the lunacy of government obstinacy in the face of a public safety crisis. It just also happened to be blisteringly fun to watch. Nonetheless, it’s crass to conflate disliking a film’s creative merits with opposing its axiomatically agreeable message. (A generous reading would suggest that’s not what McKay and Sirota are saying, though many of the film’s fans have been far more explicit on this point, outright accusing detractors of climate crisis denialism).

Trollywood A-listers: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothee Chalamet in ‘Don’t Look Up’

Don’t Look Up’s comic aspirations are clear – the gags fall flat but keep coming, a pile of lemmings beneath the face of a cliff. But its defenders seem to wish the film to be judged not as a satire but as a manifesto. It brings to mind Stewart Lee’s sarcastic retort to an audience applauding a political joke of his: “I’m not interested in laughs. What I’m interested in is a temporary liberal mass consensus.” Even if we were to review the film specifically through the lens of its rhetorical effectiveness, though, it comes up short. Yes, many of its satirical targets are deserving of a kicking, but Don’t Look Up offers little in the way of hope, little to energise viewers into activism. It is as bleak and despairing a portrait of environmental crisis as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – though it doesn’t seem to know it.

It is hard to suppress the feeling that we are completely impotent in the face of climate catastrophe in the UK. Climate protesters are often vilified in the media; so much of the global political establishment seems unwilling to commit to the sort of radical change needed to save our planet. In this sense, the central metaphor of Don’t Look Up is chillingly relatable. But that doesn’t make it a good film. We don’t have to pretend otherwise, just for the sake of appearing righteous – indeed, film critics have a professional obligation not to. It really is as simple as that.

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