While McKay and Sirota make an easy punching bag out of politicians, their more specific and simmering rage is directed towards the technocratic elite represented by Rylance.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed lately, but there has been a lot of discussion within film circles about Adam McKay’s divisive primal scream about the state of the world, Don’t Look Up. The film functions specifically as a satire of climate change and COVID-fueled fears, but is more broadly a screed against anti-intellectualism and anti-science trends in our ongoing cultural debates. When the fate of the world becomes a political talking point, we all lose.
Of course, as has become evident in McKay’s post-The Other Guys work, he handles most of these topics with a white-hot blinding rage which borders on sputtering and cursing. The impact of this approach, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, has been met with a…let’s call it mixed response. Not helping matters, McKay and his co-writer, former Bernie Sanders staffer David Sirota, have taken the defensive position that those who criticize their film are actually criticizing itsmessage (when for the most part, no they’re not) and are themselves not concerned about the looming doom inherent in climate catastrophes. Thus, perhaps ironically, the lines around the film have become dangerously fraught, as people are now responding to the backlash to the original wave of criticism, which in turn fosters another round of criticism and so on and so on and oh look here comes the comet anyway.
For my own part, I found Don’t Look Up to be better than the harshest critics would suggest, but still below what my highest expectations might have been. Which is to say that I would place it directly between The Big Short and Vice, the other two McKay “message movies”, in terms of quality. It didn’t bowl me over, but some sections, especially in the final act of the film, hit me in an emotionally resonant way. To borrow the clumsiest of metaphors, it is the textbook definition of a “mixed bag” movie. So I both hear the criticism of the movie’s over-cranked style as well as those who passionately defend it. However, there is one aspect of the film that I feel has been somehow under discussed in the endless tweets dissecting it:
Mark Rylance is incredible in this movie.
To talk about why, however, will require some spoiling of the plot. If you want to watch the film before I breakdown the whole plot through one character’s arc, here would be the place to do it. It’s available on Netflix now, but honestly, if you’re reading this, I imagine you’ve already seen it.
You good? Okay. Here we go.
Mark Rylance is so staggeringly good in this movie, and is honestly one of my favorite supporting performances of the year. He plays Peter Isherwell, the head of leading ill-defined tech company BASH. Isherwell is the amalgam of every tech-sector figurehead you can imagine, a smattering of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. To match the tone of the rest of the film, he’s of course a heightened version of that, speaking in a sort of unnerving, nearly inhuman monotone as he discusses the fate of humanity—and, of course, his specific place in that fate.
As you certainly know at this point, the core dilemma of Don’t Look Up is a fatal comet hurtling towards Earth, guaranteeing a cataclysmic extinction event. The two scientists who discover this impending doom (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) attempt to warn the world, but through various hyperbolic roadblocks, they are met with passive indifference. After overcoming the initial indifference from the administration of President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep; more on her later), which comes to see saving the planet as a politically expedient move, it finally seems like the asteroid is going to be destroyed and Earth’s fate will be saved.
And here is where Isherwell enters the main plot. When he reveals that the asteroid is made up of rare minerals that are vital for ongoing technological manufacturing, he convinces the powers that be that destroying the asteroid completely would be less beneficial than breaking it apart for mining. Of course, this leaves the characters with a razor-thin margin of error, but the eventual windfall for both BASH and the United States is surely worth the risk.
Unsurprisingly, things go poorly, and the hubris of those who allowed capitalism to blind them eventually leads to the end of life of Earth. But in one final gesture, Isherwell escapes this fate, along with President Orlean, by blasting off to find a new habitable planet, cryogenically frozen. Effectively, if he can’t be rich, Isherwell chooses immortality.
And here is what makes Isherwell such a rich, important character within the conversation that McKay and Sirota are driving at in this film. It is specifically important to view him in contrast to his fellow villains. Streep’s Orlean and Jonah Hill as her idiot son/chief of staff are the clearest example of McKay’s worst instincts as a satirist: Orlean is a sub-SNL commentary on a Trumpian president, crass and crude and violently abrasive. Hill’s Jason Orlean is an even worse example, both because he defaults to Hill’s own most comfortable schtick since Superbad, but also because he takes subtext and continually blurts it out as text.
By contrast, Isherwell’s intentions and approach rings as commentary on real world figures. He is admired, the way that many of our tech giants are, but is also socially removed, both through his wealth and his world outlook. He sees the world not as a collection of living creatures but as an algorithm, a mathematical problem to be solved. And thanks to his massive, unknowable wealth, he always has a solution, often self-serving. It is not hard to see the direct line between Isherwell’s cryogenic space voyage and the billionaire space race we were subjected to over the past year.
Rylance plays all of this with perfect restraint, soft-spoken but firm, constantly restraining his true intentions and exactly how concerned he is for himself. Everything and everyone is an asset to be exploited, and the few times when he raises his voice, it is to assert himself as the ultimate arbiter of Earth’s space. While McKay and Sirota make an easy punching bag out of Trump and his family, their more specific and simmering rage is directed towards the technocratic elite that were never elected and yet pull the actual strings of our lives.
The irony of Mark Rylance playing James Halliday in Ready Player One just four years ago is not lost. Halliday was an isolated tech weirdo who used his love of popular culture to create a path towards freedom for a doomed society. Halliday is who we idolize our tech-overlords to be, but Isherwell is who they are behind the veil of unknowability—just the newest capitalist oppressors who limit the future. Rylance’s performance underlines this unnerving, dehumanized figure so brilliantly. It is easy to get exhausted by Streep and Hill’s explicitly vulgar performances, but Rylance’s pinched delivery walks a line to let you winkingly know who the actual threat in this crisis is. Hint: It’s not the asteroid.