When Satire Can’t Keep Up with Reality
Adam McKay’s disaster satire Don’t Look Up is many things at once: a parable of our distracted society, a primal scream of a warning, and a broad comedy from the writer/director of Anchorman. Such a delicate balance has made the star-studded Netflix film a polarizing movie.
Critics, audiences, and activists have both savaged and praised the movie, and the backlash has highlighted the difficulty of conveying an urgent message with comedy. Has political satire lost its power? Or has reality become so absurd that it’s now beyond parody?
That challenge was evident in the making of Don’t Look Up. As McKay told David Sims, he wrote the story about a planet-killing comet (and our society’s inability to act collectively to stop it) as a climate-change metaphor. But after the script was done, production shut down for the pandemic and he watched the follies of a real-life disaster surpass his fictional one.
COVID-19, climate change, and a planet-killing comet are very different crises. But the narrow-minded leaders of Don’t Look Up are unable to act against even the most obvious of existential threats. How close is its story to our own? And can its message make a difference?
Staff writers Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss the movie and the current state of satire on the Atlantic culture podcast The Review. Listen here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Don’t Look Up.
Sophie Gilbert: Today we are here to talk about Don’t Look Up, the disaster satire from Adam McKay that came out on Netflix last month. Here’s a bit of plot by way of recap, if you haven’t seen it or just want a refresher. The premise is dramatic but straightforward: Two astronomers, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, discover a comet will hit Earth in six months. They attempt to warn people. They appeal to the White House. They go to the media. Lastly, they appeal to the business leaders hoping to profit from the big ball of minerals headed our way. But people aren’t eager to hear the message, and the planet-killing comet becomes another culture-war football as it nears Earth. DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters implore people on social media to just look up, while Meryl Streep’s President Janey Orlean tells her followers: Don’t Look Up.
It’s not the subtlest of metaphors. But then again, it’s not supposed to be. The movie’s director, Adam McKay, said he was inspired to write the movie by his burgeoning terror about the climate crisis. And then the pandemic happened, and a comedy about even the most obvious of threats failing to stir collective action became suddenly newly relevant. So today we’re here to break down the movie, but also talk about the state of satire—and the question of whether our culture has become too depressing, too absurd, too lamentable to satirize.
So let’s talk about the movie. The release has almost become a parody of discourse itself. There have been reviews, counter-reviews, and defenses. A lot of debate about this movie. So David—how did you react when you first saw it?
David Sims: I saw this film fairly early, a few months before it came out, because I interviewed Adam McKay. But I remember emerging in a real bummer mood. The movie really kind of rattled me. It’s not how you’d exit after seeing a new comedy from McKay.
Spencer Kornhaber: Were you in a glass case of emotion?
Sims: (Laughs.) Yeah, I was. Milk was a bad choice. The film obviously ends on a down note in many ways, but I kept having this experience watching it where some twist would play out, and I would have the knee-jerk reaction of: This is a bit much, even in a satire. And then another side of my brain would nudge me with some real-world example of it. So I had a complicated reaction to it. And I was sort of amazed by the way the discourse played out on its release, with this initial wave of mixed reviews and then a kind of anti-critical backlash. Why are you criticizing a movie that’s trying to send a message? And the whole online discourse became kind of exhausting, which is partly what the movie’s about.
Gilbert: It’s true. I thought your interview with Adam McKay was really interesting, when he said that the first two-thirds of the film was supposed to be entertaining and the final third was supposed to hammer home the message. My experience of it was really the opposite. The first third was just panic, with everyone making bad decisions. And then by the final third [it] had kind of a nihilistic acceptance and a nice, sentimental dinner party.
Sims: I would agree with that completely, yeah.
Gilbert: Spencer, did you take in the takes and counter-takes about the movie?
Kornhaber: Yeah, I knew Don’t Look Up was in a discourse cyclone with film critics hating this movie and liberal commentators blasting film critics. That’s a flip of the dynamic that we’ve seen play out with blockbuster movies—but not about climate change, which is the subtext of this movie. I was ready for it to be like an interesting bad movie, but I think it’s kind of an extraordinary movie. It’s accomplishing something that I’ve never quite seen done before. And while it made me laugh, it actually made me cry, which shocked me, and it gave me things to think about. And what else do you want from movies?
Gilbert: I didn’t cry, but I left persuaded more than ever that there is never going to be anything that manages to sway the public to save the world in any meaningful sense. We’re just too concerned with our own lives. It really makes the case that we have evolved past the point of collective action. Everyone’s kind of assessing Don’t Look Up on different grounds: There are the people assessing it as a film. And then there are the people who are like, “How dare you assess this as a work of film?! It’s a primal scream about our inaction in the face of a threat that is dooming us all!”
Kornhaber: It’s supposed to be a movie that saves the world, according to the discourse. And I don’t think that’s an expectation to have for any work of fiction. But to be fair, I think the way that McKay has talked about this movie kind of makes it seem like maybe he did want to save the world with this movie? Did you get that sense talking to David?
Sims: I get the sense that Adam McKay thinks that things are very dire, and the climate emergency is going to accelerate even faster than predicted. And so certainly he’s on the battlements, trying to sound an alarm. But he’s an entertainer. That is his stock-in-trade. He’s not making An Inconvenient Truth; he’s not just standing in front of a PowerPoint.
Kornhaber: But that kind of is what The Big Short was.
Sims: Well, look, his last out-and-out comedy—his last movie with Will Ferrell, The Other Guys—ended with these credits that rolled like, yeah, a sort of PowerPoint series of graphs about the financial crisis. And pension-fund machinations were a background story in that movie. But I remember people walking out of the movie being like: “That was funny. What was with the end there?” And, since then, McKay has shifted to a more polemical style of filmmaking that is grappling with real-world stuff.
He made The Big Short. He made Vice. He produced Succession and directed its pilot. When I interviewed Bong Joon Ho a few years ago, Bong said McKay is one of his favorite American filmmakers. And Bong also makes these straight-at-the-camera current-event satires. And the question is: How do you balance that with entertainment? How do you get your big message across while also keeping the audience hooked? And McKay’s got movie stars. He’s got twists and turns. He’s got special effects. Throw all that together in a blender.
Gilbert: But it’s also a question of: How do you balance advocacy and satire? Because satire exposes, and advocacy provokes. And this film works as a very brutal satire in the sense that it certainly made me feel that the world is too fucked to save itself. And everything—including all the forces of business in Silicon Valley, in media and entertainment—just distract people from the fundamental crisis at the heart of the movie. But I think the movie kind of dooms itself in that it’s asking you to pay attention, but it’s also telling you that it won’t matter.
Sims: Right. You’re also asking: How do you also balance advocacy and nihilism? Because there is a certain level of nihilism that comes with talking about the climate crisis that is hard to avoid. And obviously, I think McKay knows that. He’s making an asteroid movie. These movies usually end with some sort of triumph. And he knows it would be ridiculous for him to end the movie on a high note, because that would undercut his message. And so he has to end it on the bummer note, but that’s a tough thing to ask of a star-studded mainstream comedy premiering on Netflix at Christmastime.
Gilbert: It’s such a tricky tone to nail. Do you think there’s a version of the movie with a slightly different balance that could have worked better?
Sims: You could make a more straight-ahead blockbuster movie that’s just tinged with metaphor. But the thing that this flirts with being—but does not completely commit to being—is more like a Dr. Strangelove kind of movie. A pure anarchic satire that is set in the real world, but every character is cartoonish, and there’s no sense of humanity whatsoever. But Don’t Look Up tries to retain this core of humanity, especially in the Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence characters. When I interviewed McKay, he said DiCaprio was obviously interested in the project and the message but was not going to commit until they’d figured out his character. He clearly did not want to be in a cartoony pastiche movie.
McKay also told me that his editor had said it was the trickiest movie he’d ever edited with McKay. The tone is so difficult to nail down, because it’s swerving from bleakness to silliness to realism. It’s a staggering challenge to try and contain everything, and in such a big ensemble with so many twists and turns. So that’s where things about it didn’t click for me. But the last act worked really well for me, as it starts to abandon the more cartoony stuff and the media critiques. It becomes more of a character movie set in the last days of Planet Earth.
I love Adam McKay. I’m a very fierce defender of his comedy stuff. I don’t know where he goes from here. He’s making a movie about Elizabeth Holmes next. He’s staying in the real-world critique. And this definitely is a very grand, ambitious work that you have to admire the ambition, I think, even if you don’t admire the end product.
Gilbert: Yeah. I wanted to talk about the arc of his career, but because he talked about wanting to move on from oafish white guys like the products of his earliest films because they stopped being funny. And I don’t know that they stopped being funny, necessarily. I think they’re in many ways as funny as they’ve ever been, but I think the humor made them too lovable.
Gilbert: The dunces of Anchorman and Talladega Nights—you really find charm in something that turns out was not so charming.
Kornhaber: Yeah; that felt like a Bush-era approach. And now in the Trump era, we’ve seen just how awful these characters are, and they shouldn’t be made lovable.
Sims: I do connect to Leo’s character. Not as someone I’m like;, I just found the arc of him being celebrity-ified compelling. He’s this introverted scientist just trying to get a message across—who then becomes [part of a] Fauci-esque matter of debate in the middle of the movie, where people either think he’s dreamy or he’s a liar. It gets at the weird way that our culture can only process people as celebrities now, even when they are not striving particularly to be. I found that to be one of the most effective bits of commentary in this movie. And I think a lot of what works about this movie works because of DeCaprio. He’s giving an extremely committed performance, and this movie would not have a center without him. Otherwise, I found some of the media stuff a little broad. There’s no morning show like the one in this with such an absolute cultural=lodestone quality.
Kornhaber: Yeah, to me, the media stuff felt the most dated and predictable. I think the dissonance with the media stuff also speaks to the way the comet doesn’t work as a metaphor for climate change. The media loves negativity, loves the apocalypse. If there’s a big asteroid heading toward Earth, there’s no way that’s not front-page news immediately. And it’d be totally histrionic and unhelpful, probably.
It’s just not the way that climate change works. It’s not something that’s going to affect us in a world-destroying way in the next six months, though the movement has admirably tried to create deadlines and tip-over points. It’s just not the same thing as an asteroid, and so it doesn’t ring true that this news would be ignored. It’s a little bit more like COVID to me. What did McKay say about the COVID with regard to the movie?
Sims: That’s what interested me most in talking with him. He wrote this movie as a one specific metaphor. And then as he’s getting ready to make it, he has to shut down because of another apocalyptic moment in culture—that then ends up kind of proving so much of his critique unintentionally. That is what’s wild about this film. And he agreed that it was a crazy circumstance. As he was in lockdown, he went back to the script and had to intensify some of the satire—make the wackiness quotient of Don’t Look Up even higher, to eclipse moments like Trump floating injecting bleach on national TV. It’s too ludicrous, and yet it’s played out. So he needs to match the absurdity. It does reflect what’s difficult about satire right now. How do you find ludicrousness in our ludicrous reality? How do you heighten and amuse when everything already feels so heightened all the time?
Gilbert: Right; there was the idea that Trump defied satire, because he was bigger than it could ever manage to be in its wildest imagination. I also think it’s really hard to satirize things when you’re in the middle of them. And the climate crisis is a tricky one for that, because we’re going to be in the middle of it now until we all die. So there’s no relaxed off-phase to digest this in the sense that maybe there will be with the Trump presidency in a decade or so. It just seems tricky in this moment for entertainment to tackle these really big issues.
Sims: A similar problem for Hollywood was the difficulty of the Iraq War movie. That was much-discussed in the 2000s: We’re in Iraq. It’s a major thing that’s happening to America. Why can’t we make movies about it that resonate? There were so many movies about the Iraq War or modern warfare in general that flopped. And eventually we had The Hurt Locker. Even though it wasn’t a huge hit, it won an Oscar and was a big, memorable movie. But the struggle with depicting the Iraq War in art is the same as the struggle with climate change. It’s very difficult to turn into something entertaining, because almost every Iraq War movie was just about: We’re stuck. We don’t know what we’re doing. The enemy is oblique. The purpose is vague. We thought it was just impossible to put a heroic narrative onto it.
And obviously, that’s something Vietnam War movies had trouble with, too. But then the Vietnam movie became more of a thing post-Vietnam, after we were out of the war and there was more reflection. It’s just going to be hard to do with climate change. You can’t make a simple movie about scientists saving the world. It’s not going to reflect reality.
Kornhaber: I think this quest for movies to deliver a message that changes people’s minds is maybe quixotic. There aren’t a ton of works in history like that. But what they do do is give you a set of like images and characters and metaphors and cliches that, when they work, become absorbed into our language. They help us talk about the world in ways that are hopefully progressing our discourse and society.
Sims: Right, I think of Jordan Peele as one of the more interesting, metaphorical directors. Both Get Out and Us delivered very strong, punchy metaphors. Get Out had the sunken place that you could read a lot of contemporary observation into how Black people are marginalized or forced to sublimate parts of themselves. And then Us—which I think is wildly underrated as one of the best pieces of satire Hollywood’s made in recent years—about how capitalist society works, where there’s so much that you just have to ignore.
Kornhaber: Absolutely; Us is a wonderful distillation of how the world works, and definitely underrated. But with Get Out, I think it made a lot of white people check themselves about whether they were a character in that movie. And with Don’t Look Up, one of the things that works about it is: True, you can’t really satirize Trump. He’s kind of beyond parody. But you can call attention to the dynamics of the way that people relate to him and the effect he has on the world around him—and on the viewers themselves.