Warning: The narrative of “Don’t Look Up,” including the finale, is revealed in the following tale. Instead, read the review and this joint interview with director Adam McKay and actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Then, after you’ve seen it, come back.
Adam McKay is fully aware of how a major Hollywood film about an imminent global catastrophe is supposed to play out.
The asteroid is detonated by Bruce Willis. The Avengers successfully repelled the alien assault. Superman has the ability to travel across the planet at a speed that allows him to go back in time. Everyone leaves the theatre with a smile on their faces, certain that life will carry on.
McKay didn’t want to do that with his star-studded feature “Don’t Look Up,” which will be released on Netflix on Friday.
“Don’t Look Up,” a warning on the climate problem disguised as a film about an approaching comet impact, closes with the worst-case scenario coming true: world leaders fail to rise to the moment. Technology isn’t going to rescue the day. The comet collides with the earth, obliterating all life. Even the few privileged, affluent individuals who manage to flee to another world are quickly devoured by strange beasts.
McKay sought to offer a wake-up call to people who would cheerfully keep pushing the snooze button when it comes to tackling the true issue of climate change by denying the audience the normal feel-good finale, inspired by dark comedies like “Dr. Strangelove.”
“We’ve watched hundreds of movies where the world is going to end, whether it’s Marvel films, James Bond films, or 1970s catastrophe films, and it always works out,” McKay previously told The New York Times. “I don’t believe it’s insane to suggest that this is part of the reason we don’t take the collapse of the habitable atmosphere seriously.” When challenged about climate change, Elon Musk simply said, “I believe that technology will take care of it.” That seems like someone who has watched a lot of movies where you know everything will turn out in the third act. … People seeing a movie that finishes with people not working to obtain the happy ending — perhaps that will elicit a response.”
The idea drew Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who portray a couple of obscure scientists who find the comet and fight to convince the rest of the world that it is a real danger, not simply because of the sharp-edged humour, but also because of the bleakness of the finale.
“The conclusion of this movie turns pretty gloomy, and I don’t believe we would have been as enthusiastic to film it if it hadn’t had that tone shift,” added DiCaprio, who has been fighting to raise awareness about climate change for years. “It’s impossible to predict what a film will do culturally, but the ending of this film is a tremendous slap in the face.”
“I’m sure I speak for pretty much everyone when I say that it’s really irritating to be a citizen who believes in climate change and is concerned, but I’m not a part of it — you know, I can’t purchase a senator — so we’re just powerless,” Lawrence said. “And then this [project] came along, and it was simply hilarious and necessary.”
The film was being made at the same time that the coronavirus epidemic was spreading, providing McKay and his cast with a real-time case study of society’s chaotic and divided reaction to a global disaster — and validating the film’s prediction that such a response would not go well.
“It was already a strange screenplay,” McKay recalled, “but I’d say reality out-crazied us by like 10% to 15%.” “Way to go, reality.”
In the early days of the epidemic, McKay derived some optimism from the first lockdown’s communal spirit, believing that the globe might band together with same resolution to handle the climate catastrophe.
“The scientific community has been attempting to make this link about how all of our behaviours are going to influence everyone,” McKay adds. “You continually hear the realities of why you can’t stop the fossil fuel economy, but when it came to COVID, boy did we make a lot of difference incredibly quickly.” Much of it eventually broke apart, but I took that as a hint that when we’re really terrified, some huge old change may happen.”
As McKay sees it — and as “Don’t Look Up” brutally mocks — the largest impediment to change is our incapacity to communicate effectively with one another about important issues in the twenty-first century media environment, even when the destiny of the planet is at stake.
“The underlying concept [of the film] is that we’ve messed up the way we communicate with each other by profiting from even the most insignificant of transactions,” he remarked. “You have to get ratings, you have to get clicks, whether it’s Snapchat or TikTok or social media or the news.” This does not imply that anybody is to blame or that anyone is bad. It’s the system we’ve put in place. But we’re in a very hazardous scenario because when everything is a commercial transaction, the dark reality will never be revealed.”
As bleak as the threat of world calamity may be, “Don’t Look Up” ends on a poignant note, if not hopefulness. Dr. Mindy (DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) meet with friends and loved ones over dinner in the last hours before the comet impacts, taking solace in one another’s presence, exchanging prosaic gratitudes, and making whistling-past-the-apocalypse small conversation.
“That’s what I liked about the finale,” DiCpario added, “because I felt like that’s how I’d react in the end.” “We’re a communal species, and I’d rather be among the people I care about than worry about the approaching Armageddon.” “It was really the dining table moment that sealed the deal for me.”
If the world were to end tomorrow, McKay says he’d go back to being a full-time smoker and seek for the most unhealthy cheese steak he could find. But he aims to achieve a similar level of elegance in the future.
“I had a little heart attack around two and a half years ago; thankfully, no harm was done, thank God,” he said. “However, for like three days, I couldn’t stop smiling.” You had never seen me in such a good mood. ‘I’m alive!’ I said. And I’ve heard that some individuals have that feeling when they are terminally sick, when every minute becomes so exquisite and precious. I’d want to see whether any of it comes into play.”