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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, February 23, 2024

Public Cinemy No. 1: Implications of backlash against ‘Don't Look Up’ critics

Graphic art for the column "Public Cinemy No. 1" is pictured.

I’m growing weary of the current Hollywood craze for substandard movies that play up righteous messages to overshadow their flaws. Call it callous, but it’s difficult to subdue my cynicism towards films pushing truisms like ‘obviously bad thing … is bad,’ especially when creators then weaponize the message, accusing their movie’s critics of stupidity or of opposing its banal, virtuous axiom.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m referencing Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” (2021), a dark comedy parodying climate change where scientists discover an extinction-causing comet, only for politicians and media pundits to bastardize and deny their message. The point is solid, exploring how scientists’ and activists’ efforts to resolve society’s various Gordian knots are debased by bureaucracy. While the film drew mixed reviews, scientists lauded it for its portrayal of their experiences. Fair enough — it had a moral, struck a chord and became a top-watched Netflix production.

But none of this changes the fact that “Don’t Look Up” is a subpar movie, and no dodging of criticism by conflating artistic appraisal with denying climate change will convince me otherwise. The film is less satire, more clumsy funhouse mirror; it fails to offer insight beyond the obvious and then renders the obvious in a cartoonish, obnoxious fashion. McKay’s bizarre mixture of sophomoric humor, bloated snark and lack of a dictionary within which he could look up ‘subtlety’ rarely works. It’s almost 2.5 hours of being beaten over the head with a message that quickly becomes tiring and holier-than-thou, ushered in by sloppy editing, vapid performances and flat jokes. The funniest part of the movie is the idea that Leonardo DiCaprio would marry a woman his age.

But critiques of the film have sparked something of a war: a frenzied volley of op-eds and angry tweets, featuring everything from tomato splats to accusations of climate change denial. McKay — who alsoframed disliking his film “Vice” (2018) as immoral because people died in the Iraq War — maintains people may just dislike it because they don’t understand climate change, comparing them to robots watching a love story. Co-writer David Sirotawrote that critics missed the point and are “laughing at people trying to fix stuff.” Viewers are polarized into those who unequivocally support the film because of the message and those who evaluate it like any other work. Both are valid, but baseless attacks are not. When did critiquing political satires transform from the question, ‘Is the film good?’ to ‘Whose side are you on?’

“Don’t Look Up” shouldn’t be judged as a manifesto but as what it is: a satire that fell flat. Not every jigsaw of pixels plastered with DiCaprio and Meryl Streep’s faces is of Oscar caliber, and no message, however virtuous or politically charged, should shield a movie from artistic evaluation. The backlash to criticism shows intolerance that’s becoming disturbingly common in our sociopolitical atmosphere, a growing tendency of people to reject any perceived challenge to their moral ideals without consideration for nuance nor dissent. Yes, McKay is correct that climate change exists, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dislike his movie. Great films can have problems, and principled films can be badly made. A moral doesn’t make a film well written, and condemning critics doesn’t make McKay any funnier. Such deflection allows moral superiority to create blindness to valid criticism, and that does no one favors.