Don’t Look Up Is a Primal Scream of a Film
The director Adam McKay believes that his star-studded new Netflix movie is an apocalyptic comedy for our moment.
Adam McKay conceived of Don’t Look Up as a warning. Once Saturday Night Live’s head writer, he had gained attention as the director of anarchic Will Ferrell comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers before receiving Best Picture nominations for darker satires about the Great Recession (The Big Short) and the vice presidency of Dick Cheney (Vice). “I kept getting this itchy feeling that there was just a giant shadow over all these stories,” McKay told me. “I was like, I have to do something about the climate.” The initial idea came from the political commentator and former Bernie Sanders speechwriter David Sirota, who said to him “something to the effect of, ‘The comet’s gonna hit and no one cares.’ It was very offhand, and that idea just kept coming back and bugging me.”
In Don’t Look Up, which is now in theaters and lands on Netflix this Friday, a planet-killing comet is spotted in space by an astronomy student, Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence), and her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). Their efforts to warn society are met with derision, disinterest, political cowardice, and, eventually, total denial. McKay’s script has its knives out for the news’s unwillingness to tell hard truths, social media’s endless conveyor belt of distractions, and a political class more intent on winning elections than pursuing real solutions. It’s a primal scream of a film, somehow even more direct than McKay’s last two pieces of Hollywood agit-prop, but he told me in a Zoom interview that he was intent on keeping the film entertaining, at least until its quieter, bleaker final act.
“You’re going to be laughing; you’re going to see shocking, absurd changes; and then I wanted … for all of that to melt away, to end ‘real,’” he said. “The goal was to take you through the amusement-park ride and have the last stop just be whatever—a landfill.” McKay’s early comedies married dark outlooks on life with crowd-pleasing silliness; his more recent works retain the broad appeal while striving to deliver a message. The satire of Don’t Look Up is anguished and clear to the point of feeling bludgeoning. McKay’s most ridiculous, high-concept comedy since Anchorman 2, it’s driven by special effects and a star-studded cast that includes Meryl Streep as the president, Jonah Hill as her sycophantic son, and Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as simpering talk-show hosts.
When McKay worked at Saturday Night Live, he loved writing job-interview sketches—for example, a centaur applies for a job at a hospital—because the basic premise was familiar to viewers, no matter how strange or creative the execution. Similarly, McKay said of Don’t Look Up, “the comet idea is perfect because we, as filmgoers, know the routine. We’ve seen this movie before.” The upsetting thrill of the film comes from watching humanity face a fictional cataclysm à la Armageddon or Deep Impact and then, unlike the heroes of those stories, fail to rise to the challenge. In McKay’s movie, the president stalls on taking major action in order to avoid alarm; Dibiasky and Mindy’s lack of media training hurt their efforts to sell the gravity of the situation on television; and the rest of the world, uninterested in the notion of total doom, starts to question whether the comet is even a credible threat.
I watched Don’t Look Up in an otherwise empty screening room while wearing a mask, and I was struck by how bluntly it reflected our current pandemic reality, where the most basic science has become a matter of political debate. McKay intended the film as a climate-change parable, about how society chooses to ignore impending danger. But after he wrote the script and had begun pre-production, he watched with astonishment as a different apocalyptic scenario played out toward similar ends. “We basically went home … and sat on our hands for six months with the rest of the world,” McKay recalled of early 2020. “The entire time I’m getting emails and texts from our crew, from our cast, saying, ‘Oh my God, did you see there’s a tax break for millionaires in the COVID package?’ That’s a beat in the [Don’t Look Up] script. ‘Oh my God, did you see there’s people denying COVID exists?’ At one point I’m like, we don’t make the movie. It happened! We’re too late!” When he returned to the script, he had to make it “20 percent crazier, because reality had played out crazier than the script.”
One “stranger than fiction” moment that particularly struck McKay was when then-President Donald Trump floated the idea of injecting bleach to kill the coronavirus. “Nothing I had in the script was that crazy,” McKay said. “So I added more comet denial … ’cause we were seeing that kind of stuff happening … In the edit room, we had to do this weird straddling of reality versus bonkers.” Even the most absurd beats in Don’t Look Up, like a billionaire tech magnate (Mark Rylance) who wants to mine the comet for rare minerals, have some basis in real life. Other plot developments feel eerily reminiscent of recent history: The taciturn Mindy achieving celebrity status is both a clever use of DiCaprio’s onscreen star power and a nod to how scientists like Anthony Fauci have become magazine cover stars.
Throughout the process, McKay was intent on using the hallmarks of blockbusters—big stars, special effects, and thrilling plot twists—to get a message to the widest audience possible (hence the movie’s release on Netflix). McKay added that he knew he wanted to cast A-list actors but had to work to attract DiCaprio, a climate activist, to the role. The writer-director tried to make sure that the very broad comedy of his script didn’t flatten out DiCaprio’s character.
“We’d have three-, four-hour meetings talking about the movie,” McKay said. “All my conversations with a lot of these actors—especially [DiCaprio] and [Lawrence], because they are kind of the emotional core of the movie—were about the real feelings they have to have to keep the movie working. They had to actually be terrified and frustrated, and play the comedy,” he continued. “It’s definitely the trickiest tone of any movie I’ve ever done … The tone was so delicate and you could break it so easily.”
I confessed to McKay that, as a major fan of his earlier works, I long for him to return to goofier material, especially given that his madcap films often still worked as satire. The Other Guys was a cop-movie spoof that also referenced Wall Street corruption; the NASCAR comedy Talladega Nights, to me, remains a definitive text on the swaggering, buffoonish masculinity of the Bush era. “It was a cultural moment, and then that stopped, because a lot of the things we were making fun of in those comedies, mediocre white guys who behave like giant children—all of a sudden, we saw the dark side of that,” McKay said. “It was like when clowns stopped being funny.”
To him, Don’t Look Up is part of a cultural reset trying to grapple with contemporary divisions: “Call it collapse culture, or the great awfulness,” he said, laughing. He promised that his next project was “definitely a comedy,” and after we spoke, Apple announced he’d be making his long-gestating Elizabeth Holmes biopic Bad Blood with Lawrence in the leading role. The saga of Theranos’s rise and fall does seem to perfectly fit McKay’s current interests: zeroing in on the often farcical way corporate and political power work in America. That’s why McKay could not shake the image of the oncoming comet, for all its ridiculousness. “The most exciting idea for me was, it’s funny,” he said. “You realize we're living in a culture that's more like a time-share sales pitch than a real system of communication. [As a Hollywood director] I’m right in the middle of it, and part of this movie is generated from me laughing at myself as much as anything.”
Listen to David Sims discuss Don't Look Up on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: