The best exemplars of science fiction films have grandiose ideas that draw wonder. Their settings dare to venture into endless vastness. Their quests challenge unknown mysteries as numerous as the stars. Through it all, it’s often the smallest variable of the overall cosmic equation, namely people, that becomes the most powerful element of those stories. The longing for human contact is paramount. No distance or obstacle can sever the anchor of human connection when survival is on the line. We grab onto movies like that and hold them dear.
What if the goal of urgent connection is the critical need to tell people to stay away instead of come together? Can one hold back that longing and craving for a greater good? Can the right people achieve such a noble act? That is the physical and moral adversity present in Netflix’s new The Midnight Sky directed by and starring George Clooney. Channeling astonishing hope from elegiac calamity with that grip of human connection, the film earns a fitting place as one of those exemplars.
The year is 2049 and the planet is reeling from a sudden and unexplained cataclysmic collapse. Gray-bearded astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is observing the rising global radiation levels from the Barbeau Observatory north of the Arctic Circle in extreme northern Canada. While others have evacuated, he has stayed, only to find that he’s not alone, discovering a stowaway little girl named Iris (Irish actress Caoilinn Springall). Augustine is terminally ill and wouldn’t be fit for travel with his daily blood dialysis needs. Besides, he’s in a position to warn and protect a very important mission beyond the contaminated skies.
A five-person Aether team of exploring astronauts (Rogue One’s Felicity Jones, Selma’s David Oyelowo, The Chi’s Tiffany Boone, Oscar nominee Demian Bichir, and the trusty Kyle Chandler) are rocketing home with the greatest news of potential in human history. They have spent two years establishing the viability of successful colonization on the previously undiscovered K-23 moon of Jupiter, an opulent place rich with oxygen, water, and other hospitable conditions. The crew are becoming worried and perplexed as to why they are not hearing any communication from Mission Control back home.
If those historic pioneers return, they will suffer the same all-encompassing death that is encroaching on Lofthouse, erasing the bright possible future they bring. He knows this, but the Barbeau dish is not strong enough to hale the Aether. Meanwhile, discontinued telemetry guidance from Earth has caused the spaceship to veer off its designed course into an uncharted section of meteor fields. Time is imperative as Augustine plots a perilous trek through the frigid and dangerous outdoor conditions to a stronger radio telescope station nearby while the astronauts troubleshoot their navigation corrections and their own sustained damages.
That’s the doubled frame of escapades in motion during The Midnight Sky, based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2017 bestseller Good Morning, Midnight adapted by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). With several space films under his belt, most notably Gravity, Clooney stepped into his largest directorial challenge to date and yielded a marvelous technical and artistic display of post-apocalyptic science fiction. The ingenious sets and space gadgetry of production designer Jim Bissell (300, Good Night and Good Luck) typify a not-too-distant futurescape with excellent precision. Utilizing the weather and topography of Iceland and the Canary Islands, cinematographer Martin Ruhe (The American) captures the breathtaking hazards that lie outside Bissell’s interiors. Ruhe’s rotating camera and light movements are outstanding during sequences of hair-raising spacewalks and the howling glacial winds. Topmost of all, two-time Academy Award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water, The Grand Budapest Hotel) personifies both the somber isolation and thrilling steadfastness of the human character arcs.
In casting, Clooney found a wellspring of resolute and congenial dispositions and personas fit for the film’s suspenseful emotions. On Earth, Clooney, playing his age in his first film in four years, becomes a bedrock of will and fortitude, complete with a hinted backstory of failed romance featuring actress Sophie Rundle and Star Trek: Discovery’s Ethan Peck as a younger Augustine. His sadness drives his imperative push. Helping Clooney along, holding his hand and his conscience, is an enchanting and near-mute presence from Springall. She becomes more than a walking Cast Away “Wilson” for company and for dialogue’s sake.
On the space side, Smith and Clooney aged the astronaut characters from the original novel and reworked the plot to include Felicity Jones’ very real pregnancy. The more serious reflection at heart suits that veteran age adjustment more than macho heroics that saddle other films of this type. That dynamic, built strongly by Oyelowo, Bichir, Boone, and Chandler, creates a tangible camaraderie. That little fetal heartbeat inside Jones becomes one more soul to save, adding a lovely layer of natural strength to both the actress’s rigor and the film itself. She’s the linchpin in parallel to Clooney.
Humanity rightly becomes the beautiful and ruminative zenith of The Midnight Sky. It occupies a reality that could match the here-and-now as much as it defines its fictional future when addressing the helpful and harmful effects of both minute and broad human actions. Clooney’s combined work on this drama is forthright with its altruism and free of forced villainy. True to the earlier introduction, this experience to be cherished rises to be about character more than crisis, which is where poignant performances take over. Their benevolence is mesmerizing and their endurance beyond is moving.