Don’t Look Up Three stars In cinemas, and on Netflix from Friday; Cert 15A
Funny animals, we are. All the science at our fingertips, never more readily available or verifiable, and yet we can’t seem to find the collective will to change our ways in the face of global threat.
The climate emergency, that thing that was haggled over just recently at COP26 as if it was a lame mule nobody wanted, is here and now – and yet we place more importance on short-term gain than on the planetary systems that support our lives.
Ripe subject matter then for writer-director Adam McKay.
He transitioned from comedy (Anchorman, Step Brothers) to scathing, award-courting satire, with 2015’s The Big Short, a lively and warmly received take-down of America’s fast-and-loose financial classes and the global crash they midwifed.
Then, Vice (2018), an arch take on the life of former-US vice president Dick Cheney, used a similarly disquieting brand of laughter to tear strips off neocon opportunism.
Beneath the sharp wit and roll call of big-name stars, McKay depicts moral bankruptcy and the far-reaching system collapses they can bring about.
The climate crisis fits that bill perfectly, only the send-up will require a slightly more fanciful approach. After all, the system collapse this time is a potentially existential one.
It also makes for the darkest humour McKay has penned to date – one that, like all great satire, doesn’t necessarily make you laugh such is its uncompromising bite. This is more nervy titters than knee slaps. This is comedy with an asterisk, where the discomfort it causes is central to its clout.
Prepare to wince as it shows up our species seizing anything – celebrity gossip, consumerism, party politics – to distract from impending catastrophe.
Leonardo DiCaprio – in real life a zealous climate advocate who only came on board after McKay agreed to a few script edits – breaks a major sweat as astronomy professor Randall Mindy.
After one of his grad students, Kate Dibiasky (the ever-game Jennifer Lawrence), discovers a new comet in the solar system, some calculations by Randall and his team prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Everest-sized object is on a direct six-month collision course with Earth.
With the help of a Nasa boffin (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall bring this urgent news straight to the White House, where President Orlean (Meryl Streep), a kind of GOP media ringmaster à la Mr Trump, holds office alongside her boorish chief-of-staff son Jason (Jonah Hill).
What they encounter in the Oval Office is various degrees of indifference as the entire thing is viewed through ratings, electoral strategies, and a reluctance to be the party-pooper, all served with an ample side order of scepticism about the data.
When the decision is made to go public, the pair end up on The Daily Rip, the kind of vacuous US morning TV show that makes you relieved to live in Europe.
Here, the message that immediate steps must be taken to avert wholesale doom is met with chirpy insouciance by the co-anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), both of whom are more interested in the recent tabloid soap opera of a mega-selling pop starlet (Ariana Grande).
When Kate’s exasperation with the media circus is given vent on-air, social media steps in to pull the entire cataclysmic situation down to a new and altogether weirder level of distraction.
By the time the White House finally gets on board, the cabinet is in thrall to a reedy-voiced tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) who has spotted a profitable angle to the asteroid. Timothée Chalamet and Ron Perlman are among the other familiar faces that crop up in the ensemble cast, having a right old ball.
Jonah Hill can do this kind of thing in his sleep. It is more enjoyable to watch Streep and Blanchett prancing about such mayhem, the latter especially potent as the primetime panther. DiCaprio and Lawrence work splendidly together – she, the eye-rolling millennial; he, the check-shirted academic – unassuming types who are suddenly thrust into a carnival of madness.
There are times when McKay goes a bit far and overbakes any absurdism in the premise. How could it not, in fairness, given the stakes the film plays with?
But for the most part, this is an unnervingly reasonable way to imagine such things playing out in today’s attention-deficit world. It makes Don’t Look Up a film that is likely to endure in our cultural consciousness – even if it proves too on-the-nose to make a splash at the box office or awards season.
Amazon Prime Video; Cert 15
There are sinister elements at play in Michael Pearce’s brash and decidedly uneven sci-fi thriller, Encounter. Heck, the darn thing occasionally plays out like an M Night Shyamalan joint.
A third of the way through, Pearce (the British filmmaker behind 2017’s award-winning psychological thriller, Beast) and his co-writer Joe Barton pull the rug from under us, with a peculiar twist that demands you sit up and pay attention.
The great Riz Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a decorated Marine who, in the dead of night, retrieves his sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), from his ex-wife’s house, before embarking on what he believes is a save-the-world mission.
Microscopic aliens are living among us, says dad, and he’ll need his boys – and his parole officer (Octavia Spencer) – to do exactly as he says if they want to survive a global invasion.
Armed with more ideas than it knows what to do with, Pearce’s film is intentionally tricksy.
Equal parts chilling genre piece and gut-wrenching family drama, Encounter will mess with your brain – and not always in a good way. It’s lucky to have the capable and committed Ahmed on its squad. Give it a go.
Apple TV+; Cert 15
How about this for a moral quagmire? In Benjamin Cleary’s tender, near-future sci-fi, a dying man invests in a controversial program to have himself replaced with a clone. There is a catch: he isn’t allowed to tell his family – and the clone won’t know that he’s a clone.
Indeed, Cleary’s feature debut is brimming with possibilities. The Oscar-winning Dublin filmmaker doesn’t always explore them as well as we’d hoped, but there is something here.
Mahershala Ali is Cameron Turner – artist, graphic designer and loving husband to Poppy (Naomie Harris). They have a child together, and another on the way, which probably explains why Cameron is reluctant to tell his wife that he’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Instead, he liaises with a persuasive, underground scientist, Dr Scott (Glenn Close), to develop a... erm, more alternative solution.
Obviously, he’s doing it to protect his family, but at what cost?
A quiet, slow-burning melodrama, Swan Song wrestles with some big ideas and doesn’t always have space to accommodate its supporting cast. But its heart is in the right place, and it’s a breathtakingly handsome film, anchored by a moving central turn from Ali.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
In cinemas; Cert 12A
In director Jon Watts’ third Spider-Man feature, Peter Parker (the sublime Tom Holland) faces his toughest opponent yet: the US college application system. Yep, Parker and pals, MJ (Zendaya, superb) and Ned (Jacob Batalon, likewise), are in their final year of high school. If that wasn’t stressful enough, our favourite neighbourhood web-slinger is struggling to come to terms with the world knowing his secret identity.
So, our boy asks Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to perform a spell that will make people forget he’s Spider-Man. Alas, the spell goes sideways, and a long line of villains from Spider-Man’s, erm, parallel universe past begin showing up to wreck our hero’s head. It’s a tall, busy tale, but Watts and his charismatic team of performers tell it brilliantly. True, No Way Home features so much ‘multiverse’ fan service, it should have been called Spidey’s Greatest Hits. Still, it’s a witty, energetic and surprisingly moving display that soars higher than most of its predecessors.