Features and Columns · Lists · Movies

12 Movies to Watch After ‘Don’t Look Up’

In this edition of Movie DNA, we look at the movies that came before Adam McKay’s satire, including silly disaster flicks and serious documentaries.
Don't Look Up
By  · Published on December 24th, 2021

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Jack Nicholson Mars Attacks
Warner Bros.

Audiences don’t always want to laugh in the face of disaster, and that’s part of why Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! bombed while fellow alien-invasion movie Independence Day became the biggest hit of 1996. Mars Attacks! also went a little darker in its direct depictions of deaths caused by its extraterrestrial villains. Of course, it was also a little too broad and goofy, and that’s sometimes a problem for Don’t Look Up as well.  One thing this and Dr. Strangelove have that Don’t Look Up should have had also: an actor playing multiple roles.

Mars Attacks! is streaming on Netflix.

Wag the Dog (1997)

Wag the dog like don't look up

Apparently, nobody remembers this movie except for film critics. I thought about every beat of Wag the Dog (especially its original song) while watching Don’t Look Up (which has its own motivational original song) and mentioned it to numerous people who had no idea what I was talking about. But plenty of reviews reference it, so I’m validated. Co-written by David Mamet and directed by Barry Levinson, this political satire is about a presidential sex scandal and a diversion requiring the assistance of a Hollywood producer.

Perhaps the reason so few people forgot about the movie is that its plot is the same as real-world events coinciding with its release. Just after Wag the Dog was released in theaters, the story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky broke. And immediately after, the White House bombed a factory in Sudan said to be tied to terrorism. Similar bombing diversions occurred during Clinton’s impeachment trial. Interestingly enough, Don’t Look Up‘s release coincided with a real-life asteroid that came very close to Earth. And nobody paid attention to that story either.

Wag the Dog is now available on Hoopla. 

Deep Impact (1998)


I was going to recommend watching both Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact because they’re equally relevant to Don’t Look Up given their similar premise. And they are worth watching as a pair in order to appreciate their dueling nature within the same release year. If I’m going to choose just one, though, it’s Deep Impact. The movie begins with a younger student discovering the comet heading toward Earth, it features two failed missions to destroy the comet using bombs, and at least one huge part of the object crashes down, killing millions of people.

Not quite as gloomy as Don’t Look Up, but it’s close. Armageddon was more popular upon release, maybe because it has fewer moments of melancholy. But Michael Bay’s version of that plot is too gung-ho jingoistic to be compared to Don’t Look Up. I guess that also makes it worth watching in contrast to the new movie, which finds the unifying spirit of Armageddon and virus disaster movies like Contagion (2011) to now seem so unrealistic. Anyway, if you do like Armageddon, also check out The Green Slime (1968), which is like Bay’s movie meets Aliens.

Deep Impact is now streaming free on PlutoTV.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Day After Tomorrow

If you want people to take an issue seriously, comedy is not the solution. It didn’t work for Democrats in the 2000s, and it’s not going to work for climate change or the pandemic or a comet heading towards Earth. Comedy only relieves some of the tension that comes with the fear, a la Dr. Strangelove. And maybe that’s the best Adam McKay’s latest can do or is meant to do. To its benefit, Don’t Look Up is never exact or direct regarding the specific issues it’s targeting, so it manages to play loosely enough to not have to be taken too seriously.

Another thing that doesn’t work, and this is related to comedy, is exaggeration. That’s the case with the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which is based on a nonfiction book seriously dealing with climate change. The adaptation stretches the truth for blockbuster movie storytelling, and that’s a shame given that it’s also meant to raise awareness about an important issue, one that it specifically focuses on in the story. As a result of the movie being so ridiculous, climate change was aligned with its plot and therefore also viewed as something ridiculous.

The Day After Tomorrow is now streaming on HBO Max.

The 11th Hour (2007)

The 11Th Hour

Surprisingly, Leonardo DiCaprio is not a producer on Don’t Look Up, but it’s not surprising he signed on to star in the movie. Outside of being an actor, DiCaprio is known for being an activist with a particular focus on the environment and the issue of climate change. He’s produced numerous documentaries to show his support for such causes, starting with this one. He also appears in and narrates The 11th Hour, the only film for which he has a writing credit.

It’s almost 15 years old, so while it is alarmist about the state of the world, it’s also relatively optimistic that things could still change. The 11th Hour is not just about climate change, but that would later be DiCaprio’s primary interest with documentaries he’s so involved with, such as Before the Flood (2016), in which he appears discussing the issue with then-President Barack Obama, and Ice on Fire (2019), which is still filled with hope.

The 11th Hour is now streaming free on Kanopy. 

Disaster Playground (2015)

Disaster Playground watch if you like Don't Look Up

As pointed out in Don’t Look Up, the Planetary Defense Coordination Office is a real division of NASA. It’s led by a guy named Lindley N. Johnson, who consulted on McKay’s script. He also appears in this documentary about — what else? — scientists and organizations concerned with celestial threats to Earth. But there’s a catch: our leaders still have to take their advice. Fortunately, in real life, it’s not like it is in Don’t Look Up. In fact, NASA recently launched a mission to see if spacecraft can be used to deflect objects in space. We’ll see next fall!

The official synopsis sells Disaster Playground as “the real Armageddon” — however, sending a blue-collar oil-drilling crew to space is, logically, not among the true solutions. One expert in the film (Dr. Donald Yeomans, then the manager of the PDCO’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program) actually credits Deep Impact for its accuracy. While it’s unknown what he thinks of Don’t Look Up, he is quoted in a recent New York Times article about the movie and the reality of this sort of disaster.

Disaster Playground is now streaming free on Kanopy. 

Fauci (2021)

Fauci Documentary

So far, I’ve recommended movies involving cataclysmic disasters involving objects from space, and I’ve recommended movies involving climate change, the initial inspiration for Don’t Look Up. But I haven’t addressed its parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden influence of this ongoing disaster on the making of the movie. Well, I mentioned Contagion. But I want to end with one more documentary, this one being partly about the coronavirus.

There are a lot of great docs dealing with COVID-19, and Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control (2020) is one that chronicles the absurdity of the US government’s handling of the pandemic in a way that’s like a real-life version of Don’t Look Up. I also recommend Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath (2021), which does something similar, but from China, and also has an important message about why we shouldn’t try to return to “normal.”

Fauci, a biographical profile of Dr. Anthony Fauci, also concerns the story of the mishandling of the situation (including, he admits, his own mistakes), from his perspective as a man of science overwhelmed with the politicizing of the pandemic and all the misinformation out there. It also, however, runs with the idea that a scientist such as he (and DiCaprio’s character in Don’t Look Up) could become a pop culture icon and sex symbol.

Surprisingly, that element to Don’t Look Up was not a response to what was happening with Fauci. As McKay told The New Republic recently:

“I had no idea who Fauci was when I wrote the character. I wrote Dr. Mindy because I was playing with the idea of these scientists who do this hard work but are not made to do talk show circuits for weeks and weeks. Sometimes they have to, but that’s not what they do. It was very strange to see Fauci then materialize and become this voice that was attacked. These scientists step up and give you their empirical truth and then get hatcheted and attacked.”

And here’s DiCaprio on the coincidence on the Today show:

“It was amazing to witness what was going on in real time as we were making this movie. We’re sitting there trying to explain science as Fauci was doing the same thing. It was a bizarre experience.”

Perhaps this documentary needs an appendix now asking Fauci what he thinks of there being, coincidentally, a movie featuring a “Fauci-esque” scientist character played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He was already played by Brad Pitt, so maybe it’s no big deal at this point.

Fauci is now streaming on Disney+.

Pages: 1 2

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.