The Midnight Sky
2020, PG-13, 122 min. Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 25, 2020
Every era of humanity has been convinced, at some point, that it represents the end times - either as the peak of experience, evolution, and development, or due to some mumbo-jumbo apocalyptic superstition. So it would be hubristic for our modern convictions to be seen as extraordinary. The differencemaker now is that we have more than enough stats indicating ecological collapse that our dourest forecasts have a greater likelihood than, say, a wolf eating the sun or the dead rising from their interment.
So while people have always considered and contemplated their own mortality, apocalyptic fiction, especially depicting any kind of eco-Armageddon, inevitably must face the very real possibility that we may be gone, as individuals and as a species. How do we face that ending?
The Midnight Sky, George Clooney’s adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, resonates with his earlier cosmic meditation on isolation, his 2002 collaboration with Steven Soderbergh on channeling Stanisław Lem's opaque Solaris for the cinema. Another literary adaptation, another story of a scientist facing the implacable universe, and the unexpected intervention of a small child. In this case, researcher Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, who both acts and directs) is facing the very real possibility that he will be the last person alive. A mistake has been made: Humanity has made Earth uninhabitable, and he’s the last crew member at a polar base. Everyone else left because they have someone back home with whom they wish to die. Lofthouse left all that behind years ago, as shown through a series of flashbacks to his self-destruction of any personal life. Instead, he became an earthbound exoplanetary researcher looking for humanity’s next home, one that he will never see. Yet he has two last missions. The first is to care for a young girl, Iris (Springall), who has mysteriously been left behind by another resident of the base. The other is get to a nearby antenna array and warn the crew on the incoming research vessel Æther that they must return to the stars and never look back.
Clooney breaks the story into parallel and eventually intersecting narratives, as Lofthouse and Iris cross the frozen plains while the astronauts aboard the Æther (and most especially Jones as pregnant mission specialist Sully) are trying to work out why all contact with Earth has disappeared. In these strands, sentimentality and science combine as Clooney celebrates two parts of the human experience that too often seem in short supply or even contradictory. In their interplay, Clooney places The Midnight Sky into a deep tradition of science fiction, in which the most humane of traits may outlast us. He touches on a sense of kind warning that reaches back to This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet - only this time, we are the Metalunans and the Krell, the doomed species whose fate may hold a message for us all.
There's one core, strange decision that might have worked if it didn’t involve Clooney: having Ethan Peck play the younger Augustine, still voiced by Clooney himself. The younger actor is around the same age that Clooney was when he debuted on ER in 1994, and that familiarity makes the melding of the two performances feel incongruous. In the same way, the wilderness adventure of Lofthouse carries much higher stakes than the Æther’s meteor-pummeled journey back to Earth, leaving the story a little lopsided.
Yet The Midnight Sky shines with Clooney’s deep and abiding belief in the human condition, in compassion, in … “redemption” is the wrong word, too Catholic. Rather, in connection, even if it is brief, even if it is seemingly one-sided. Even at the end of the world, he suggests, a kind word will resonate across the universe. His Earth may be a cold, dead place, but that does not mean it lacks any warmth.
The Midnight Sky arrives on Netflix on Dec. 23.
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The Midnight Sky, George Clooney, George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall