However, unlike Dr. Strangelove, rather than make a movie darkly amused by the lunacy of the situation, Don’t Look Up is strident, furious, and in a state of perpetual panic. And it’s determined to get through to the viewer, even if it has to scream its point over a mammoth two and a half hour running time.
Thus the characters of Dr. Mindy and PhD candidate Dibiasky, as well as to a lesser degree Rob Morgan’s Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe. We’re introduced to all three in Don’t Look Up well before we meet Meryl Streep’s Trumpian buffoon, President Orlean, or her parasitic finance bro son, Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), never mind Cate Blanchett and her cheshire grin as morning news TV personality, Brie Evantee, or Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell, an unholy blending of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jim Jones.
Mindy, Dibiasky, and Oglethorpe are the audiences’ eyes and ears, as well as their proxies in which a moral authority voice from on high—or at least from the scientific community for our secular world—is unburdened. They’re here to scold and castigate the political and media establishment for 150 minutes. They’re also intended to reprimand an audience too who might be more familiar with Ariana Grande than the current White House chief of staff.
It’s so fiery, so passionate, and so self-satisfied, it doesn’t really seem aware that the humor doesn’t really work when its main characters aren’t committed to the bit. By having one of its audience avatars exclaim to the camera, “Maybe you should stay up all night every night crying, because we’re all 100 percent for sure going to fucking die!” the film is literally screaming its message. Of course this is by design, as McKay’s script also couches this scene in a moment where Dibiasky is “losing” the audience by not playing the phony game of having a media strategy. Nevertheless, the scene also subconsciously reminds the audience that they, like these protagonists, don’t quite live in the otherwise satirically heightened world McKay creates when he has a three-star general con a NASA scientist out of $20. We’re better than them, so we can dismiss this purely as schadenfreude as we wait for the dumb-dumbs to get wiped out.
By contrast, there is no tonal confusion or sanctimonious proselytizing in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which is why its message and storytelling are more effective. There’s no audience surrogate, no voice of wisdom, and no “adults in the room” that just needed to be ceded enough floor space to lecture the dummies whom its target audience naturally disagrees with. Rather we’re all doomed because we’re all complicit in building this foolish world, according to Kubrick’s detached sensibility and merciless script.
The film’s own less aggressive opening title sequence—and certainly more restrained when compared to other ‘60s comedies that Don’t Look Up emulates—is centered around real stock footage of two U.S. Air Force aircraft refueling while in midair. When presented over slow, melodic shots as mechanical, phallic-shaped pieces extend from one aircraft to another, and fuselages are filled, and an airy orchestral cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” plays, it all looks ridiculous… yet tangibly real. This is actual footage recorded by the U.S. military re-contextualized by a cinematic dirty mind which promises to look at these real world systems and institutions from a mischievously skewed vantage.