REVIEW: The Midnight Sky [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 122 minutes
    Release Date: December 23rd, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): George Clooney
    Writer(s): Mark L. Smith / Lily Brooks-Dalton (novel Good Morning, Midnight)

As good a place as any.

We’re three weeks past “the incident.” What that means is vague when talking about specifics, but the fact that Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) is saying goodbye to people as they board multiple helicopters during an evacuation that leaves him as the last human in residence of a high-tech command station in the Arctic says all we need to know. Earth is on its last legs—if any still remain. Those people are hoping to build new lives on a lunar colony orbiting Jupiter and he’s decided to stay behind “just in case.” With weeks left to live courtesy of an advanced cancer diagnosis, he figures he’ll be of more use as a last resort from the past than a waste of space on a vessel harboring mankind’s future.

The question at the center of The Midnight Sky (of which Clooney directs from Mark L. Smith‘s adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton‘s novel Good Morning, Midnight) is who’s left for him to help. His monitors all show that the radiation that ravaged our planet is inching its way north to consume him too, so time is definitely not on his side. A quick glance at the system shows that one single mission (the Aether) is active and it just so happens to be returning home. The fact they haven’t adjusted course means they most likely don’t know how dire things have become. Two years testing that moon for habitation will keep you in the dark to such details and now it’s up to Augustine to get them to turn back.

That mission on its own would be enough to sustain an apocalyptic sci-fi adventure. Inject some suspense by forcing Augustine to travel miles through harsh snow in search of a stronger satellite and discovering the Aether is off-course to the point of having to navigate uncharted space for its return and the action pretty much writes itself. But Clooney isn’t an action director and the subject matter isn’t escapist. This story is conversely about our ability to survive the impossible by tapping into what makes us worthy of that survival: empathy and sacrifice. That’s why Augustine must do his part while suffering debilitating pain and why the Aether crew must find ways to keep morale high despite how long they’ve been away from the people they love.

How do we discover their respective personal costs? By getting to know them under arduous circumstances. We watch Augustine limp through his station and confront the horror that he isn’t alone: seven-year old Iris (Caoilinn Springall) missed her departure and is now fated to endure Earth’s last gasp alone. We watch Sully (Felicity Jones) and Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) reconcile their job to secure humanity’s salvation with the unexpected personal development of falling in love with a baby on the way. And there’s Maya (Tiffany Boone), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir) using holograms to remember the people they risked their lives to save and can’t wait to see again. Two people are forced to utilize what little time they have left to ensure five strangers get more.

The stakes are thus more intimate than the grand heroics other similar films might wield. Rather than have a clock on saving Earth, the clock is on a handful of astronauts being able to save themselves. So don’t expect any petty conflicts or ill-formed grudges. Don’t wait for fireworks to throw man-made wrenches into a scenario that doesn’t need more fuel for the proverbial fire that’s raging. Adewole provides a crucial line early on that states how he’s lucky his crew is so good because anyone less would be panicking after going as long as they had without communication. The Aether’s inhabitants know the importance of their jobs and how to juggle it with the emotions swirling around. They’ve become a family who knows the mission isn’t everything.

This is especially true now that so much has changed since they’ve been away. They thought they discovered a road towards infinite time only to discover the sand already ran out on billions. And at the same moment Augustine realizes all the time he spent paving that road (he discovered the moon’s potential decades ago) meant wasting the life he could have had in his own backyard with the love of his life (Sophie Rundle), long since gone, and an estranged daughter he never allowed himself to meet. This is the stuff that carries Midnight Sky above its familiar beats and routine machinations. We know when danger is coming and we know the tough choices necessary to overcome it, but the emotions are authentically devastating just the same.

What surprises me, though, is that so many people want to compare it to Solaris and Gravity—probably just because Clooney starred in both and admits using those experiences to guide him through storyboarding and directing this one. It’s much, much closer to Interstellar for me. Filter the emotional heft and human motivations of that film through Clooney’s thematic inspiration On the Beach and you get close to what he’s delivering. Regret and a hope to erase it drives these characters forward onto arcs of redemption that may or may not prove futile in the end. But whether they can make good on promises, reverse the tides of selfish choices, or allow themselves the freedom to let go is inconsequential. That they try is what counts.

It’s why Chandler, Bichir, and Boone excel above the rest in supporting roles. They’re more or less expendable when compared to Jones and Oyelowo (for reasons that are obviously drawn very early) and thus able to let their characters propel them forward against the plot. They exist outside it so they can augment it with tough decisions and heartfelt emotion. That’s not to say Jones and Oyelowo aren’t good. They’re simply written into more of a corner thanks to the quasi Adam and Eve potential projected upon them (Clooney wrote her real-life pregnancy into the script) rendering their baby a literal and metaphorical symbol of faith that our species will live on. And they’re also fixtures to Augustine’s narrative as a crucial parallel and reward for his journey.

I will admit, however, that the Aether plays second fiddle to Earth nonetheless. They get their big action set-piece like Augustine and Iris do on the icy Arctic water, but surviving what faces them is moot if they don’t also survive what’s awaiting them. So Clooney and Springall (in a wondrous, virtually silent turn) are our true stars. The way they overcome tragedy and continue moving to save one ship despite the thousands on Earth with no chance of a future is where the real meat of the story lies. It’s that selfless humanity and compassion that inspires regardless of knowing Augustine ultimately has a personal stake in saving the Aether beyond assuaging past guilt. They’re the best of us: heroes holding onto hope despite their own oblivion.

[1] George Clooney (“Augustine” – Director – Producer), Caoilinn Springall (“Iris”)
[2] Felicity Jones as Sully and David Oyelowo as Commander Tom Adewole. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020
[3] Demian Bichir as Sanchez and Tiffany Boone as Maya. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020

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