In a popular folktale “Chicken Little” whips up hysteria in the barnyard yelling, “the sky is falling!” Chaos brings opportunists and suffice to say it doesn’t end well for the little guy. Neither does it for astronomer Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PHD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) in Netflix’s new satire, Don’t Look Up, in theaters now and streaming Dec. 24.
When Dibiasky discovers a planet-killing comet scheduled to rendezvous with Earth in six months, she and Mindy take their findings all the way to the White House. Outside the Oval Office they are runner up to a troubled Supreme Court nominee with porn in his past followed by an office birthday party. Finally the two astronomers are told to please come back tomorrow when they learn that the President, (Meryl Streep) is more concerned with the upcoming midterms than with the end of the world. In fact, no matter how loud they yell it no one seems concerned that the sky is indeed falling.
A satiric look at climate change, Don’t Look Up coincidentally has plenty to say about our handling of COVID. “I was just thankful to play a character who is based on so many of the people that I’ve met from the scientific community, climate scientists who’ve been trying to communicate the urgency of this issue and feeling like they’re subjected to the last page in the newspaper. Then, of course, COVID hit and there was a whole new scientific argument going on,” DiCaprio told the press at the film’s New York premiere. A longtime proponent of environmental issues, he said he’s been waiting decades for a movie on climate change.
Filmmaker Adam McKay found the subject daunting to satirize. “It’s arguably the greatest threat to life in the history of mankind,” says the Oscar winning writer-director of “The Big Short.” “I think we get hit with sort of the thumping doomsday talk quite a bit. Which, by the way, is totally legit when it comes to climate change. But I did think it was important that people be allowed to laugh and have some distance. It’s also a great unifier. You can’t really fake laughter. It’s not a political thing.”
DiCaprio blames mass distraction for the lack of urgency about climate change. In the film, one culprit is pop culture. Just before Mindy and Dibiasky are to appear on a popular morning talk show, their doomsday message is overshadowed by the on-air reunion of a pop star played by Ariana Grande and fellow singer DJ Chello (Kid Cudi). When Dibiasky cuts through the layers of pablum with a high volume admonition, she is labelled an Apocalypse Karen and quickly becomes a meme.
“I love the way he portrayed these two different characters, one that is incredibly outspoken, like a Greta Thunberg in Jen’s, and mine that is trying to play within the system,” says DiCaprio, whose Dr. Mindy is labelled AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to Fuck), and embarks on an affair with the morning show co-host played by Cate Blanchett.
The film was shot last year when everyone was stuck in their homes. Most of the all-star cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry and Ron Perlman were forced to observe COVID protocol on the set, wearing masks and staying in designated zones. “Everyone did it and found a way to be creative that was genuinely moving and touching,” notes McKay.
Jonah Hill was happy to reunite with DiCaprio, with whom he co-starred in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Django Unchained.” “When I got in a room with all these geniuses it was just amazing to laugh and think and create something in a time where everyone’s been stuck in their houses. It was really emotionally meaningful to me,” Hill told his castmates.
In the film, Dr. Mindy’s climactic speech is a clarion call to all of us about the dire circumstances we face. “I really wanted to articulate the frustration of the scientific community,” says DiCaprio. “We worked a lot together on trying to understand how one would be in a situation like that of ultimate frustration realizing the world is falling apart. And how do you take off this professional jacket to cut straight to the chase about the truth of this issue?”
It’s among the few sober moments in a comedy about a sobering subject. In the folktale, the hysteria created by “Chicken Little” created an opportunity for the sly fox, who wound up with a healthy lunch while havoc reigned around him. Tragedy impacts audiences more than comedy, but the latter is what they like.
“If you’re able to laugh, that means you have some distance. I think that’s really important,” says McKay. “You can feel urgency and you can feel sadness and you can feel loss while also having a sense of humor.”
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