Bil’s rating (out of 5): B.5
USA, 2021. Bluegrass Films, Hyperobject Industries. Story by Adam McKay, David Sirota, Screenplay by Adam McKay. Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Produced by Adam McKay, Kevin J. Messick. Music by Nicholas Britell. Production Design by Clayton Hartley. Costume Design by Susan Matheson. Film Editing by Hank Corwin.
It’s just a regular day in the astro-lab watching the vast reaches of the universe on computer screens when Michigan doctoral candidate Jennifer Lawrence spots a comet in her scans, sharing her findings with her supervising professor (Leonardo DiCaprio) who then runs the numbers and finds that they tell a very bad story for the future: the comet she discovered is heading towards Earth and is large enough to destroy all life on our planet. The dark news is shared with NASA and a number of scientists also run the numbers and find the same results, which means that DiCaprio and Lawrence are sent directly to the Oval Office to tell the sitting president (Meryl Streep, too busy getting back at Donald Trump to enjoy this performance) what they know and what they think she should do about it.
Streep, however, doesn’t find the comet useful for her career this close to midterms and dismisses the scientists without committing to a solution, but when a sex scandal threatens her political career, she pulls them back in to work on a solution for saving the world that will, no doubt, help enamor her to voters. Just when the good guys think the problem is solved, along comes a nutty tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) to show the president why taking possession of this comet could generate trillions of dollars more in profits than destroying it would cost. Lawrence is shunted into obscurity because of her constant outbursts against the stupid greed that she is encountering, while DiCaprio is seduced by the glamorous life of celebrity that he has been handed, cheating on his wholesome Midwest wife (Melanie Lynskey) with a soulless, gleam-toothed news anchor (Cate Blanchett) who brings as little intelligence to what is supposed to be serious informational programming as the President is bringing to her leadership.
This film, loaded with Oscar-winning stars and a heady, seemingly provocative premise, is the latest lowest-common-denominator effort by Adam McKay, who brings so little nuance to this broadly funny concept that one might wish to be hit by an asteroid rather than check the progress bar of a film whose five-minute concept has been stretched into an offensive 143-minute running time. Climate change is, with very little sublety, the real target of the allegory, exemplified by the presence of Hollywood’s unabashedly committed environmental activist in the lead (DiCaprio) and laid out in a painfully obvious manner through goofy portrayals of the ineptitude of the political class, the greed for attention by mass media and the resentment of the masses of people who, in America in particular, have been encouraged to see higher education as the abused privilege of the elite (the fact that America has always treated communitarian thinking as a threat to democracy through one Red Scare tactic or another is one of the many ironies that McKay fails to parse in his witless criticisms of literally everyone but himself).
Lawrence’s character is meant to be the one we identify with, she is the only one who isn’t swayed by personal gain and is baffled by the lack of common sense she witnesses, embodying the exasperation of a director who is so tired of our ignorance around the subject of the climate crisis that he opts for a satire in which absolutely everyone on this earth is stupid and deserves to die (softened only by Timothée Chalamet as a skater boy whose faith is well-meaning but ultimately useless); instead of doing what’s right for us all, we only do what’s right for ourselves, usually by allowing all efforts to save the environment to be constantly undone by corporate greed. McKay’s outrage is not misplaced, particularly for anyone watching this who is already concerned about climate change, but messages imparted in satire only really work if the teller is including themselves in the joke, otherwise it’s just a lecture and it falls on deaf ears. If the director was actually intent on delivering a provocative satire that promoted thought instead of just smug reassurances, he could have condemned more than just the people he already disagrees with, like having Streep’s character act like Trump while looking like Hillary, for instance, or have Blanchett reveal a suppressed intelligence hiding behind her cheap ambitions. Instead, when the film isn’t deluding itself that it is the least bit witty, it throws in Jonah Hill as the White House Chief of Staff (and the President’s son) delivering one-liners cut in from a Judd Apatow comedy that only further overstate McKay’s contempt for everyone.
None of the script’s claims about the danger we’re in and the things we’re doing wrong about it are in the least bit controversial, this epic display of very low-hanging fruit only speaks to the converted and confirms whatever beliefs any viewer brings to it, either that liberalism is America’s new devout Christianity (salvation is only available to the few who believe, and knowing what is right means not needing to worry about how one relays the message) or that conservativism is a nicer name for unethical selfishness (in which people think they might someday benefit financially if they vote millionaires into power). Anything more interesting and daring than just the one-note finger-pointing that requires zero intelligence to dissect or discuss would have been a welcome excuse to get so much star power into one ultimately very hollow film.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score
Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture-Musical/Comedy; Best Actor-Musical/Comedy (Leonardo DiCaprio); Best Actress-Musical/Comedy (Jennifer Lawrence); Best Screenplay
Screen Actors Guild Award Nomination: Outstanding Motion Picture Cast