‘Don’t Look Up’ or: How Netflix Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Discourse

The No. 1 film on Netflix starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence continues to divide critics, with director Adam McKay commenting on the internet discourse. Will the Oscars follow?


There’s a moment in “Don’t Look Up” when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy character channels Peter Finch’s Howard Beale from “Network” (1976). In an explosion of rage on a fictional morning TV show, he vents his frustrations about the world’s ignorance about a catastrophic comet heading towards Earth and the lack of empathy humanity has shown for one another. Then, in a poignant line, he wonders, “How do we even talk to each other? What have we done to ourselves? How do we fix it?”

The film in which DiCaprio offers up those probing questions, currently sitting at 55% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes (the audience score is considerably higher at 77%), has generated a firestorm of reactions while sitting at No. 1 on Netflix for the past several days. Some have called it this generation’s “Dr. Strangelove,” while others are flabbergasted by its insistence on cloaking political and social clashes in dark humor. But history shows that Oscar voters don’t always have the same taste as the internet.

The recent comments from writer and director Adam McKay, along with David Sirota, who shares the story credit with McKay, might not be helping show how we can mend fences. Rather, they may be pouring fuel on a fiery discourse.

Reactions to their tweets came fast and hard, with critics blasting McKay and Sirota for implying that those who didn’t like the film didn’t understand the severity of the climate crisis, the film’s underlying, but unspoken, theme.

But Oscar voters don’t pay attention to “Film Twitter,” nor do they consider social media users’ feelings when filling out their ballots. As a result, the days of a film’s awards chances being dependent on reviews from critics are (mostly) over. Of course, being critically acclaimed helps raise a movie’s visibility, but the vocal detractors aren’t having the impact they did before bloggers and internet memes hit their stride.

Rotten Tomatoes has added hundreds of critics to its database since 2018, focusing on journalists from underrepresented communities. With a new population weighing in on the merits of films, universal acclaim is harder to achieve, especially amid the contentious divides in pop culture regarding art, comedy and more.

Full disclosure: I’ve watched McKay’s film three times, giving more fully into its construction and dissection of humanity’s foibles with each additional viewing. While recognizing its shortcomings, particularly the disconcerting portrayal of female characters, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it moving.

The point is, Oscar voters don’t bend to the whim of online chatter. Critics and social media commentary are only minor subsets of what’s considered successful and awards-worthy in today’s climate (no pun intended), similar to the changing dynamic of box office returns. The general public’s views are becoming increasingly more independent, and discourse only helps build curiosity. That chatter will, in turn, elevate the film’s profile, which could convince Oscar voters to move it higher up their “must watch” list.

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Buoyed by the star power of DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Timothee Chalamet, the look at our impending doom became a popular watch for families looking for a holiday comedy — no matter how dark. Word-of-mouth was high, not just among the fractious Twitter hordes, but among adults trading streaming recommendations.

Just yesterday, five separate friends and family members not involved in the industry messaged me to ask about it. The same effect is likely working on awards voters catching up with their awards films over the holiday break.

If “Don’t Look Up” does make it all the way to Oscar nominations, it wouldn’t be the first to do so despite less enthusiastic RT scores. Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (2019) received 11 Oscar nominations, despite its tepid 68%. Most famously, Dexter Fletcher’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” (2018) were huge favorites with the Academy, despite scores of 60% and 77%. The former nearly swept its five noms, taking home four, including best actor for Rami Malek over heavy favorites like Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”) in the mix. The latter pushed past films like “Black Panther” and “Roma” to take home the top prize, without a critical directing nom. “Green Book” and “Rhapsody” sport very hearty 91% and 85% audience scores.

With 10 best picture slots available, “Don’t Look Up” could land in the 7, 8 or 9 zones on Oscar ballots, with other possible noms for actor (DiCaprio), supporting actor (Jonah Hill or Mark Rylance), supporting actress (Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep), original screenplay, score and song.

Despite the vocal critical divide, “Don’t Look Up” nabbed six noms, including best picture and screenplay, from the Critics Choice Association, a group of more than 500 entertainment reporters and writers, and four from the “canceled” Golden Globes, which has 108 international journalists. The last three DiCaprio vehicles, all somewhat divisive among critics, were all nominated for best picture — 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” (79%), 2015’s “The Revenant” (78%) and 2019’s “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” (85%). He was nominated for best actor for all of them, winning for his turn as a frontiersman that survives a bear mauling in the 2015 feature.

McKay, who built a respectable career with comedies such as “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) and “Step Brothers” (2008), made a transition into more serious subjects like the financial crisis with “The Big Short” (2015) and an examination of former vice president Dick Cheney in “Vice” (2018). He won an adapted screenplay Oscar for the former, which had a respectable 89% from critics. However, “Vice” was barely “fresh” at 65%.

Here’s the thing regarding internet discourse. In this digital age of sharing your thoughts on a movie with instant reactions, and bound by 280 characters or less, it’s impossible to have an articulate conversation.

Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait Wait” on NPR, recently posted his “Peter’s Rules of Twitter,” including such well-considered advice as “never argue,” edicts which are unlikely to ever be followed by anyone engaging on Film Twitter.

The answer to Mindy’s question regarding “How do we fix it?” is far more complex than simply saying “We need to listen to each other” or “We must respect each other’s opinions.”

Social media, at its core, was supposed to act as the digital water cooler, the place where in-between our jobs, schooling, and interacting with our family and friends, we could stay connected and share our opinions regarding the newest television shows we watched and how damn cute our new puppy is. That’s not what happened.

We’ve substituted the tremors of our voices for the sounds on our keyboards. We’ve removed the physical manifestation of a person’s smile or frown for emojis and GIFs.  “Don’t Look Up” highlights the ongoing problem: We don’t want to listen. We want to be right.

Now the Oscar nominations will have the last word (in terms of awards, that is).

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