Don’t Look Up: When we overlook poor entertainment quality for ideology we are in trouble

by Bob Schwartz

Don’t Look Up is now the #1 movie on Netflix. It is the work of Adam McKay, a good comedy writer and director, creator of such gems as Anchorman (2004), a gently absurd satire of 1970s TV news that is loaded with laughs.

Don’t Look Up is not loaded with laughs, according to about half of its reviewers. To be more precise, reviews fall into three categories:

1. Sorry, but this is an unsuccessful attempt to deal with big issues. It is supposed to be a satire, but the laughs are few. A wasted opportunity.

2. This is a worthy attempt, and the results are mixed but mostly on point. Thank you.

3. Brilliant. The Academy award buzz is deserved.

What are the big issues that the movie employs so many big stars to satirize? Rejection of science (climate change, covid), social media, useless news, stupid political leaders, visionary self-serving billionaires, citizen lemmings, all in the context of the world literally ending.

Every single one of those issues deserves astute attention and analysis. You can do it seriously and didactically, and there is plenty of that. Or you can take the route of satire, which writers and filmmakers have long done. If, for example, you haven’t ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, go ahead, finish the last few paragraphs here, and watch it.

Reviewers in all categories, even the most negative, sympathize with McKay’s anger about these targets. Good intentions, even in art, should be applauded. But when we allow good intentions to distort our view of outcomes, we are hampering our ability to achieve our goals. Whether it is artists or leaders, sympathy with ideology is not nearly enough.

Every single problem McKay takes on in the movie deserves deep attention. With all due appreciation for his talents, maybe someone else will come along with a better big picture satire (or maybe nobody can or should even try to take on all of these in one film). That said, it is near certain that he will be rewarded with many award nominations and probably some wins. But if viewers, critics and awards voters don’t quite understand the cliché that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, they should consider it.