Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Climate Film Isn’t a Documentary, It’s Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’

don't look up
Image courtesy Don't Look Up trailer

The Adam McKay-directed Netflix feature film Don’t Look Up tackles climate change with an all-star cast, including climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio is taking the gloves off. The Academy Award winner and activist has done everything he can to draw attention to the climate crisis through efforts including his foundation and documentaries like 2007’s The Eleventh Hour and 2016’s Before the Flood. But it may just be his starring role in Adam McKay’s star-studded feature film Don’t Look Up, that does the trick.

The Netflix film, releasing this Friday, sees DiCaprio alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Timotheé Chalamet, and Cate Blanchett, among others, facing an “extinction-level” comet headed straight for Earth. The comet is a metaphor for the climate crisis, an issue McKay told The Hollywood Reporter at Sunday’s premier is “now.”

“We just don’t have the will or awareness because we’re spiraling off into our clique culture and chasing bright lights,” McKay said. “That science is out there, but it requires everyone to realize this is a billion times bigger than any other concern you have, and that’s just not happening in our culture.”

Despite the gravity of the climate situation, McKay does what he does best: makes us laugh. He is no stranger to over-the-top comedy (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers), but in Don’t Look Up, he buoys absurdity with the ever-increasing threat so many still choose to ignore. McKay trades in his preferred muse, Will Ferrell, for DiCaprio, whose earnest astronomy professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, is perhaps an academic version of the self-doubting aging Hollywood actor Rick Dalton played by DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 drama, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

McKay brilliantly weaves together a dysfunctional dystopia where ignorance is more than just bliss, it’s sustenance. He conjures the ludicrous chaos of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the technicolor doom of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element. Mindy is in a bad dream—you know the kind where you need to run but you can’t move. Except, it’s no dream. He can’t get anyone to take him or his PhD student, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), who discovered the comet, seriously. Time is running out, but they only stutter-step through a series of surreal encounters including the Meryl Streep as Donald Trump performance you didn’t know you needed.

President Orlean (Streep) is only concerned with winning the midterm elections; the media can’t see past the breakup of its biggest stars, Rily Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (Kid Cudi); and a four-star military general (Paul Guilfoyle) flexes his corruption by scamming Mindy and Dibliasky out of $20 while they wait for their meeting with Orlean and her flippant son Jason (Hill). The only real savior seems to be Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the Elon Musk-ish eccentric head of the tech company Bosh, who doesn’t allow direct eye contact. But he’s corrupt too—maybe the most; Isherwell wants to mine the six-to-nine-kilometer-wide comet for its trillions of dollars worth of rare minerals. 

Here, the movie conjures 2006’s Idiocracy, where crops are sprayed with the Gatorade-inspired Brawndo instead of water, and no one, except for time-traveling U.S. Army librarian Corporal Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), can figure out the problem. 

Mindy, otherwise subdued, finally loses all ability to restrain himself on national television, as he pleads in desperate profanity for anyone to take him seriously because the world is ending.

There have been two great movie meltdowns by leading men of this caliber in all of history: Charlton Heston as a devastated George Taylor in 1968’s Planet of the Apes as he makes the climactic beach discovery and laments “You maniacs! You blew it up!”, and Peter Finch as a fed-up Howard Beale in 1976’s Network as he belts his “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” dissent that becomes a bona fide national mantra.

Both of those scenes are brilliant, but neither performance had the weighty truth behind it that DiCaprio has as Mindy. Is this acting? Or is this one of the leading voices for climate action finally saying what’s really on his mind? It might be best that we don’t know.

“It’s really hard to reinvent the wheel as far as articulating the science of the climate crisis,” DiCaprio told reporters on Sunday. “What [McKay] did here was he created a sense of urgency, and we all wanted to be a part of a movie that, from an artistic standpoint, shifted the paradigm and made us start having conversations.”

But not everyone wants to have those conversations.

President Orlean almost succeeds in leading her followers to avoid the reality looming overhead—but even that fails eventually as her base inadvertently tilt their heads toward their celestial destiny.

While the threat in Don’t Look Up is visibly streaking itself across the sky as the countdown to impact ticks closer, climate change isn’t so universally visible—and the naysayers continue to deny its impact. McKay and the cast say they hope Don’t Look Up will play a part in changing that.

“Right this second, the livable atmosphere is collapsing. We’re literally living in the movie,” McKay said. “And if we don’t take immediate action, billions of people are going to die and we’re going to see this civilization collapse.”

Don’t Look Up opens in theaters this Friday and starts streaming on Netflix on December 24th—if we make it that long.

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