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Posts Tagged ‘Rob Morgan’

The civilisation-toppling apocalypse of choice for most of mid-to-late twentieth century entertainment was the viral pandemic, although this never really caught on at the cinema except in the slightly modified form of the zombie apocalypse. For nearly a quarter of a century now it has been supplanted, some might say a little ironically, by something with a bit more visual potential: the cosmic or astronomical apocalypse. This cheerful subgenre, like so much else of SF, dates back to Wells, in this case his story The Star from 1897. Noteworthy entries over the years include R C Sheriff’s wistful The Hopkins Manuscript, When Worlds Collide (book and film), and Lucifer’s Hammer. For our purposes, however, the ball really got rolling in 1993 when Arthur C Clarke published The Hammer of God, about a huge asteroid on a collision course with Earth. This duly made its way to the screen in 1998, in the much-altered form of Deep Impact, accompanied by Armageddon (essentially a kind of idiot’s version of the same story).

Since then we have enjoyed the rom-com version of the planet-killing asteroid or comet story in Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the unlikely neutrinos of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, really bad weather from space in Dean Devlin’s Geostorm, and many more besides. So another film on the subject should not be that noteworthy.

Except that Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up has become both much-talked-about and much-viewed, both of which should please the big N, which stumped up yet another eye-wateringly big budget and gave the film its customary just-big-enough-to-qualify-for-the-major-awards-but-no-bigger theatrical release.

It opens in the traditional manner, with PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) going about her astronomical research and discovering a new comet. Her excitement, and that of her peers and supervisor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), quickly turns to alarm when further analysis reveals that the comet is on course to collide with Earth in a little over six months, producing an extinction-level event for life on the planet.

Needless to say they take their terrible news to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (the film is at pains to point out that this is a real thing) and its head Dr Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), and soon find themselves whisked off to the White House… where they find themselves sitting in a corridor for hour after hour. The President (Meryl Streep) is, unfortunately, an idiot, obsessed with her poll ratings, mired in controversy, and not above giving key government positions to her own children (Jonah Hill plays her son, the chief of staff). Worrying that announcing something like this will make her unpopular, the President decides to sit on the news for the time being.

So the scientists decide to take the story to the media. They find themselves in a minor slot on one of the morning shows, after another political scandal and a story about the personal life of a pop star, and the importance of what they have to say suddenly seems to be less significant than Kate’s hairstyle, Randall’s understated charms, and the importance of keeping everything light and upbeat so as not to alienate the audience…

Things continue in a similar vein: the government finally decides to do something (but only because this will make the President look good), a deranged tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) comes up with a plan to exploit the comet using untested robots and potentially make billions, the internet becomes a battleground between people wanting to do something and ‘comet sceptics’, and so on, and so on.

I suppose this qualifies as another of those movies which was originally intended to help get Donald Trump out of office, although the effects of the pandemic have obviously seen its release pushed back – as a result the movie’s various cracks at the Trump administration feel like empty satire (although Streep is clearly having fun lampooning her old sparring partner). But having a go at Trump feels like only one of the film’s objectives, of which there are many.

McKay has been quite clear that Don’t Look Up is intended as a black satire about the climate crisis and the near-total indifference shown to it by the media, elected officials, and other governments around the world. Actual climate scientists have been giving the film glowing reviews and praising the way in which it reflects their own actual experiences in trying to raise awareness of environmental issues. To be honest, though, it seemed to me that the film isn’t really focussed enough to qualify as just being about one thing. DiCaprio’s character gets his ranting Howard Beale moment towards the end of the film, but the whole movie almost feels like a two-hour-plus yell of despair about the state of the modern world – populist politicians, skewed news values, inane social media obsessions, self-absorbed celebrities, off-the-leash capitalism, the mindless veneration of tech entrepreneurs, and much, much more.

And as such it is often very funny, though seldom especially subtle. Perhaps that’s the point. I know it has been criticised by many proper critics for coming across as rather smug – certainly the film operates from an educated liberal-left perspective, and most of its targets lie in other regions of the political and cultural spectrum. Then again the media being dismissive of a seriously-intended film about a looming disaster is exactly the kind of thing that would happen in Don’t Look Up, so perhaps this is just proving McKay’s point for him. For me the only part of the film which didn’t quite work was a section in which DiCaprio, as one of the mouthpieces of reason, gets outraged about the degree to which the scientific peer-review process has been abandoned, which strikes me as a bit of a niche topic given some of the other things at stake.

In general, though, I thought this was an engaging and often funny film, with a note of genuine poignancy to it which gradually builds as the climax gets closer – no small achievement considering how broad some of the comedy is. There are good performances from the cast, although J-Law saddles herself with the fairly unrewarding voice-of-common-sense audience-identification figure and has fewer chances to shine than DiCaprio. Has it filled me with a burning desire to do something about the state of the world? Well, no, I’m afraid – perhaps I’m just too much of a fatalist. Perhaps it really is just the same kind of cathartic wail that Dr Strangelove was, nearly sixty years ago. McKay isn’t Kubrick and Don’t Look Up isn’t as sharp or funny or dark as it would perhaps like to be – but it’s a worthwhile movie nevertheless.

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