Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights what to watch after Don’t Look Up.
Adam McKay‘s Don’t Look Up is one of the most divisive movies of the year. The satirical disaster flick is landing on lists of the best of the year as well lists of the worst of the year. While occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, the Netflix Original also seems to be trying too hard at times. The ensemble cast is full of talent, and most of them do great work, but they aren’t quite consistent or cohesive in the tone of their performances. Also, it can feel a little too familiar — especially given recent astronomical news.
Whether you love it or hate it, though, Don’t Look Up is a significant effort from an Oscar-winning filmmaker and its all-star players and deserves to be seen. Not only does it come from a long line of disaster movies and satirical films, but it seems to be the ultimate combined product of the two, with some added DNA coming in from the sad state of current politics, media, and communication. And if nothing else, it can be a gateway to the classics, many of them better, that came before.
Here is a journey through film history leading up to Don’t Look Up:
The End of the World (1916)
Disaster movies can be found as far back as the dawn of cinema. Whether originating from Biblical tales adapted for the screen or nonfiction actuality films capturing the aftermath of natural catastrophes, the genre has been going strong thanks to both real events or genuine fears of greater calamities. More than a century ago, the Danish feature The End of the World took inspiration from the response to Halley’s comet and the turmoil of World War I and delivered one of the very first feature-length entries in the genre.
The plot of the movie is one of the most similar to Don’t Look Up, too, as it concerns a comet heading towards Earth. And spoiler alert: it doesn’t have a happy ending either (if you’ve also seen Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, that’s a bonus link between the two movies). The End of the World has some of the staples that would become common to the genre, including spectacular effects, plus it deals with political and economic matters that further align it with McKay’s satire. It even has a member of the wealthy elite using the news media to mislead the public about the danger — similar to Don’t Look Up — in order to keep the stock market from crashing.
The End of the World is streaming free on YouTube.
The Day the Sky Exploded (1958)
Don’t Look Up was inspired by the crisis of climate change, so its disaster should have been similarly man-made. The Day the Sky Exploded is more on the money as a parallel. The movie is about the threat of a cluster of asteroids, yet it’s the fault of astronauts launching an atomic weapon from the Moon and its explosion accidentally dislodging the celestial objects from an asteroid belt. On top of that, the asteroids cause climate change and disasters on Earth. Ultimately, though, the world is saved by launching nukes at the cluster.
Considered the first Italian science fiction movie, The Day the Sky Exploded is also one of the first directorial efforts of Mario Bava. He co-directed, with Paolo Heusch, and shot the movie. Its politics on nuclear weapons are a little confusing as it blames them for Earth’s peril — through a character who villainously tries to thwart the climactic mission — and also uses them to save the planet. Interestingly, “The Day the Sky Exploded,” which is just the US title, is also a phrase that has been used to describe the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Day the Sky Exploded is streaming free on the Classix app.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The king of all satire films. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a hilariously dark look at the threat of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Where it differs greatly from Don’t Look Up is in its boldness to make light of a situation that had been genuinely terrifying most Americans for years. Sure, the climate change issue has left some of us sleepless, and the idea of a comet colliding with Earth is a scarily real possibility as well, but neither is anything compared to the fears at the height of the Cold War of the likelihood of a nuclear attack.
Where it does meet Dr. Strangelove is in its hopeless ending. While obviously not fresh, Don’t Look Up concluding with the Earth being destroyed by the comet is still relevant. Like Kubrick’s movie, Don’t Look Up has a cynical view of humanity as well as of Hollywood’s usual optimism. But Dr. Strangelove wasn’t the only picture of its time to give in to the worst. From allegorical sci-fi and apocalypse dramas to an Oscar-winning documentary set in a future plagued by nuclear fallout, Dr. Strangelove fit in, just jokingly. Don’t Look Up is kind of alone in its mission.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is streaming on HBO Max.
In addition to the satire targeting politics and disaster situations, Don’t Look Up also tackles issues with today’s media. The nonsensical “news” programs and their extreme positive or extreme negative outlooks, the meme-ification of serious matters, the short attention span of the audience and consequently of the news cycle, and the sorry state of print journalism are all covered. But most of today’s problems with the media, outside of a lot of those related to the internet, were foreseen 45 years ago in Sidney Lumet’s Network.
The movie is written by Paddy Chayefsky (whose knack for prophetic satire is also evident in the unfortunately lesser-appreciated health-care send-up The Hospital). It’s clearly an influence on Don’t Look Up. The scene where Leonardo DiCaprio snaps and starts yelling on television is definitely an homage to the most iconic moment from Network when a newscaster rants about “being mad as hell” and not wanting to take it anymore.
Network is available to rent from any digital video store.
This movie arrived late to the party as far as the star-studded disaster flick trend of the ’70s is concerned. And sadly, as science fiction, it couldn’t measure up to the blockbusters being produced in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And frankly, it’s not very good anyway, but Meteor is worth watching within the context of disaster movies, especially those involving space and an ensemble cast.
Like Don’t Look Up, this movie deals with politics being an obstacle in saving the world from a threat like a giant meteor. But here, different sides — specifically the US and the USSR — do come together in spite of their conflicts. Don’t Look Up shows that divided Americans can’t even unite to save humanity and it’s the US that can’t seem to work with other countries on a solution — not unlike with the real-life climate change crisis.
Meteor is available to rent from iTunes and Amazon.
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