‘The Midnight Sky’: A few of the universe’s remaining humans face challenges in one of 2020’s best films
George Clooney stars in and directs the bittersweet story playing out in the Arctic and in outer space.
“I can’t help you, you understand? I’m the wrong person. I’m the wrong person.” – George Clooney’s Augustine to a fellow traveler in “The Midnight Sky.”
As rough as it’s been in the real world this year, the planet is in even worse shape in a number of recent movies.
In “Greenland,” stadium-sized chunks of an asteroid are wiping out entire cities and killing millions.
Netflix presents a film directed by George Clooney and written by Mark L. Smith, based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Rated PG-13 (for some bloody images and brief strong language). Running time: 118 minutes. Available Wednesday on Netflix.
In the upcoming “Wonder Woman 1984,” the world has been thrown into chaos and we’re on the brink of nuclear war.
In “Songbird,” an advanced strain of COVID has a mortality rate of 56% and virtually the entire U.S. population is in lockdown.
In “Fatman,” Christmas is under siege when a hired assassin tries to take out Santa Claus.
Even in the comedy “Superintelligence,” an artificially intelligent entity has set a countdown clock for destroying the world unless Melissa McCarthy can save the day.
Now comes director George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” which stars Clooney as a lone scientist in the Arctic after the planet has been wiped out by an unnamed catastrophe. Things are so bleak here at home base, Clooney’s Augustine is on a desperate mission to contact an international crew of astronauts and tell them to turn around and never come home, because there’s no home waiting for them. It’s like a grim reverse on “Apollo 13.” And while “The Midnight Sky” doesn’t have the thrill-a-minute quotient of some of the aforementioned films, it’s the most resonant and ambitious of the bunch, with breathtaking and sometimes haunting visuals, a bittersweet and melancholy and memorably human story, and a beautiful and heart-stopping finale. This is one of the very best films of 2020.
The year is 2049 but there’s not a Blade Runner in sight and in fact most of humanity has been wiped out by an unnamed, possibly radioactive event — so yes, the movies have once again plunged us into a dystopian future that makes 2020 look like Shangri-La. In an early segment, we see the workers and families at a sprawling, massive Arctic Circle research facility called the Barbeau Observatory evacuating the territory and heading for … well, somewhere else, with only Clooney’s Dr. Augustine Lofthouse staying behind, by choice.
Sporting a Last Man on Earth beard, his eyes hollowed out by grim acceptance of his fate, Augustine is not only alone — he’s dying of cancer. He spends his solitary days skulking about the echo-laden halls of the hi-tech facility, picking at cafeteria food, gobbling down meds and giving himself transfusions. (Alexandre Desplat’s lush score, with echoes of a classic sci-fi film from the 1960s and 1970s, adds to the feeling of isolation and despair.)
As a title card tells us, it’s “THREE WEEKS AFTER THE EVENT” and it appears as if the populace is all but erased, but Augustine isn’t quite the last human alive. Deep in space, there’s the five-person crew of the space station Aether, an exquisitely ornate ship that looks like a gleaming piece of abstract art as it heads back to Earth after a mission to a recently discovered moon of Jupiter that’s heated from the inside out and could be inhabitable. And even as Augustine desperately tries to contact the crew to tell them NOT to come home, he is stunned to find a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) hiding in the research facility. What’s she doing here? How was she left behind? What is the dying Augustine to do NOW?
Working from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight” (with a screenplay adaptation by Mark L. Smith that is faithful to the source material but also includes some key changes), Clooney the director does an expert job of toggling back and forth between sequences of Augustine bonding with Iris (who doesn’t speak at first); flashback scenes featuring the young Augustine as a brilliant but single-minded scientist who ignores his wife and child as he becomes obsessed with his research, and the drama aboard the Aether, where Felicity Jones’ Sully is about to give birth and that’s just one of the challenges faced by the crew. (Ethan Peck plays the younger Augustine, with Clooney providing the voice. Peck doesn’t particularly resemble a 30-year-old Clooney, but the technique works better than most of the digital de-aging work seen in recent films.)
Augustine and Iris set out for a weather station farther north that has a stronger antenna — maybe strong enough for Augustine to get a signal and reach the Aether before it’s too late. More than once, the journey seems like a prolonged death wish, as Augustine and this child are nearly enveloped by the hellish conditions. Meanwhile, we get the obligatory space-walk-to-perform-repairs sequence, creating a buildup involving a single drop of blood that will not remain a single drop of blood, and I’ll leave it at that. Sparse in dialogue and rich in visual texture, these scenes will remain with you as if they’re your own memories.
“The Midnight Sky” is a waking dream that keeps you in its grips. Even if you can see one or both of the two major twists coming, it’s an exquisitely crafted journey into the heavens and into the mind of a man who is filled with regret about the choices he’s made and is trying to do one last great thing before his time runs out.