Reactions may vary, but everyone is talking about “Don’t Look Up.” Director Adam McKay’s outrageous satire, a not-so-subtle allegory for the PR struggles around climate change awareness, follows a couple of bumbling scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) whose reports of an incoming comet fall on deaf ears. The movie, however, has broken records on Netflix, with a reported 152.29 million hours watched globally at in the last week of the year.
These days, however, McKay envisions “Don’t Look Up” for an audience of one.
“My sweaty fever dream of a situation,” McKay said over Zoom last week, “would be Joe Manchin sitting down with his family, thinking, ‘Let’s watch this, it’s supposed to be a comedy, my kids like Leonardo DiCaprio, my grandkids like Ariana Grande.’ And then that ending comes. My dream would be that for one second, Joe Manchin feels it in his bones. For even a second!”
Spoiler alert: Things do not go well for humanity in the finale of “Don’t Look Up.” Representatives for the West Virginia senator did not respond to a request about whether he had watched “Don’t Look Up,” but McKay’s desire to impact the centrist Democrat, notorious for his stalling his own party agenda and opposing the Biden Administration’s clean electricity program, says a lot about where his head is at these days. Whether taking haters to task online or musing on the potential for comedy to catalyze institutional change, McKay is more fired up about his latest cinematic missive than Al Gore and Greta Thunberg combined.
He ticks off his agenda with the precision of a media-trained pundit not unlike the one DiCaprio’s Randall Mindy turns into over the course of the movie. “The movie’s obviously about the climate crisis, but it also happens to be lining up with the collapse of American democracy within the next three years, and this towering income inequality,” he said. “The government and the media are so tone deaf to it. You have this perfect storm of a freakout that a lot of people are feeling.”
McKay counts himself among them. He tracks his initial concern about climate change back to a viewing of “Inconvenient Truth,” when the “Step Brothers” director had yet to pivot to the more blatant socially conscious comedy of Oscar winner “The Big Short” and Dick Cheney spoof “Vice.” But the big wakeup call landed in more recent times, with the arrival of a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predicted human-induced warming of the planet by as much as 1.2 degrees celsius over the next decade. (The 2021 version of that report upped the prediction to a disastrous 2 degrees celsius, which will lead to widespread and irrevocable change in the 21st century.) That same year, he read David Wallace-Wells’ “The Inhabitable Earth,” which lays out the apocalyptic potential of global warming in the near future, as the predictions came to life around him.
“My sister had to evacuate her house in Portland from the fires and the smoke during the pandemic. Friends of mine around the world were experiencing stuff,” he said. He slid into the DMs of climate scientists he followed on Twitter to confirm his concerns. “There were a couple of nights where I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “My wife asked what was going on and I said, ‘This is a million times worse than we expected it.’ We thought it was like a hole in the ozone, which is pretty bad. Or we thought it was about saving the whales. But it’s actually the biggest threat in the history of humankind.”
That revelation, and its presence as a central talking point for the “Don’t Look Up” campaign, provides a good reason to root for the unexpected success of McKay’s bonkers ensemble piece for all its unwieldy swings. Among this year’s awards contenders with formidable campaigns behind them, “Don’t Look Up” stands out as both the most unlikely entrant (comedies rarely crack Best Picture) and the one with the most expansive message. (Most recently, it scored a SAG nomination for Cast in a Motion Picture.)
Released at a time when even the most obvious Oscar contenders have flailed at the box office, it’s the one unequivocal hit of the season. “I’ve never had an experience like this — a rollercoaster of wildly different reactions, huge global audience and obviously a subject that scares the shit out of me,” McKay said.
By the time Grande shows up as a ludicrous pop star who attempts to sublimate the campaign for comet awareness into her celebrity, “Don’t Look Up” has twisted the knife many times over. Each outrageous character serves as a signifier for another aspect of the dysfunction in play: There’s Meryl Streep as a Trumpian president who attempts to bury the magnitude of the comet’s eventual effects, Jonah Hill as her narcissistic advisor and son, Mark Rylance as a billionaire tech entrepreneur eager to exploit the comet for cash, and a couple of Fox News-y anchors (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) who would rather shrug off the apocalypse for more superfluous debate.
The science community has embraced the movie for capturing the legitimate challenge involved in conveying the potential destruction of the human race by its own hand. It’s worth noting that even the hard science on the surface of “Don’t Look Up” more or less checks out. This space nerd marveled at the way the superficial plot works in tandem with its metaphor — comets smashing into the Earth are a real threat most people don’t take seriously unless they do it for a living.
McKay hired astrophysicist Amy Maizer, who oversees the NEOWISE mission to use a space telescope for detecting hazardous near-Earth objects, to advise on the script. “It’s not a likely threat, but it is a real threat that will happen again at some point,” McKay said. That’s an understatement; “Don’t Look Up,” however, turns up the noise right down to its fiery climax.
Which is part of the reason why viewers have been divided on its blunt archetypes and didactic punchlines. With so many eyeballs on “Don’t Look Up,” debate about the merits of the movie or lack therefof launched a social media firestorm, and McKay initially felt inclined to throw fuel on the fire. “Loving all the heated debate our movie,” he wrote on December 29 in a now-notorious tweet. “But 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 was an obvious if under-realized provocation that, like the ridiculous news cycle in McKay’s movie, quickly spiraled out of control.
“The only reason I did that was because when people watch the movie and they’re especially freaked out about what’s happening they tend to respond to it a little better,” McKay said. “Someone jumped on it and said, ‘Oh, you’re saying if we don’t like the movie we don’t care about the climate,’ which is utterly ridiculous. No human being would ever say that.” He chuckled. “I gotta laugh, because it’s right out of the movie,” he said. “Suddenly, it became like I was saying critics can’t say anything, and of course they can. It’s important to have debate and passionate critics. We’re living at a time like no other and stories are part of it. People should be hating them, loving them, going back and forth.” As for critics: “We welcome the negative reviews. I actually think it’s really good, that people should be fighting and passionate about it.” (In any case, McKay said he’s trying to dial back his Twitter presence.)
Here’s the thing about “Don’t Look Up”: It’s a mess because the world’s a mess. Accept it on those terms and there is much to be gleaned about a supersized streaming hit designed to smuggle enlightenment to many of its unsuspecting viewers. “I think the freakout people are feeling goes across political lines,” McKay said. “There’s a chance to do a comedy that can relate to both people who voted for Trump and progressives and centrist democrats. The need to laugh and share is there.”
The movie splits the difference between the broad comedy of McKay’s earlier hits and the more outwardly substantial slant of his latest chapter. The impulse to address a world of troubled leadership and institutional failure has always been there. Not for nothing does 2006’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” a success story about moronic race car drivers, opens with the George W. Bush quote that “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” The toxic lunatics on the airwaves of “Anchorman” are basically a dry run for the ones in “Don’t Look Up.”
McKay said he first realized the potential for mainstream comedy to affect change after he wrote the lines for his former pal and partner Will Ferrell to play George W. Bush in an “SNL” cold open, and later found out that the real George W. Bush lambasted some staffers for watching it on the 2004 campaign trail. A few years later, he launched satiric video site Funny or Die with Ferrell, and several of the viral comic bits they developed seemed to have an impact.
That included an Elizabeth Warren’s 2010 campaign for the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, for which McKay helped round up five former presidential impersonators from “SNL” history to help make the case. “About two weeks later, Elizabeth Warren reached out to us and said the video was huge,” McKay said. “I was like, ‘Really? it got a couple million views. It played pretty well.’ And she was like, ‘You don’t understand. In Washington DC, they just see it and they think that’s what everyone’s talking about.’ It has a certain weight for these people. I think sometimes we forgot that these movies — I’m not saying just mine, but movies in general — have a lot of weight, way more than we think they do.”
McKay was driven to make his financial crisis hit “The Big Short” after his father lost his house in the 2008 recession, but it also signaled the filmmaker’s desire to go beyond the most obvious commercial opportunities in his field. “The big reason I got drawn to using comedy and story in a different was simply because…” He trailed off and laughed. “I want to say this in a way that’s not crazy,” he said. “But, like, civilization just started to become undone. I describe reality now as if you’re in a bouncy castle with hyenas and long-stem wine glasses. I wasn’t communicating in the way I wanted to. I wanted to step into this confusing fray and see if there’s a different way to tell these stories.”
Somewhere in the middle of all that, he also co-wrote “Ant-Man” with Paul Rudd, but begged off on directing it. “I love the Marvel movies,” he said, “but is there a way to have a large audience respond to a film that isn’t 99.9 percent entertainment?” His current production company, Hyperobject Industries, produced both “Succession” and a documentary on the QAnon phenomenon, among others. “Our whole company is geared toward the idea that we’re in a fracturing moment,” he said. “What does it mean for storytelling?”
That mentality forced McKay to rethink his professional commitments, contributing in part to the unraveling of his partnership with Ferrell, who split with his producing partner in 2019. In a Vanity Fair profile last fall, McKay said he burned a bridge with his old friend with the decision to cast John C. Reilly over Ferrell in an upcoming HBO series of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers without telling Ferrell first. Since that story made the rounds, McKay has made it clear that he would like to work with Ferrell again, though the two haven’t communicated since reports of their divide went public.
“I don’t think that ship has sailed,” McKay said. “I think it’s going to be OK. The great thing about Ferrell is that he’s incredibly brave. I mean, he’s a comic, but if anyone would go feet-first into a ‘Great Dictator’-type comedy or something like ‘Life Is Beautiful,’ he definitely would. Maybe, in a couple of years, he and I could collaborate on a subject that would never be a comedy — and do it in the style of a comedy.”
That’s the conceptual turf where McKay lives now. But his mission-driven mentality doesn’t mean he holds out much hope for the future of American democracy. “Boy, it’s not looking great right now,” he said. “Democrats have been pretty wildly ineffective, the Republicans have been barreling forward with extremism, and it always felt like we were heading here.” Still, he saw some paths forward. “The key to all of it is income inequality,” he said. “If we could really solve that, it will solve our political problems and the climate crisis as well. That’s my soapbox.”
For the moment, he was heartened by numbers indicating “Don’t Look Up” had resonated on a global scale. “I do think we have to remember we’re part of a giant world,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get through this and somewhere else will surprise us.” He’s willing to be more optimistic than his movie. “I’m very worried that the timeframe is so tight on the climate, but we do have some pretty remarkable science out there,” he said. “When we feel a decent amount of pain, we snap awake.”
“Don’t Look Up” is now streaming on Netflix.