That’s the word which comes to my mind as I was watching George’s Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” and as I sit here reviewing the film.
Sure there are a few light hearted moments here and there – a food fight with frozen peas comes to mind and good natured banter between the crew of a spaceship – but the overall tone is dark. That’s not a meant as a criticism, however, because the subject matter is heavy and dystopian and the movie accurately reflects the tone of the events.
The Earth in 2049 is dying, consumed by radiation from a disaster never explicitly spelled out, but which seems to have been a war started by mistake. Clooney’s scientist, Augustine Lofthouse, is also dying, suffering from an incurable and fast moving cancer, which he can only stave off with regular blood transfusions. When everyone else at his remote Arctic observatory was evacuated in a frenzied, disorganized futile rush, he chose to stay behind. His motivations become clear as the film progresses. He lives for his science and has one unfinished mission to accomplish. He’s also a curmudgeon who didn’t seem to have much use for other people even when he was young and healthy, as we’re told in various flashbacks throughout the film. If ever there was a man perfectly suited to become the Robinson Crusoe of the North, it would be Lofthouse.
Oddly enough, he has one unlikely companion, a young girl (Caolinn Springall) who he believes was left behind in the rush to evacuate the complex. She’s silent, but extremely expressive with her expressions, her actions and her art. She draws a picture of an iris for him and he calls her Iris thereafter.
There’s another small group of humans left alive – the five person crew of the ship Aether, which has been to Jupiter, exploring a previously unknown moon that turned out to be a paradisiacal perfect new home for humanity. Breathable air, drinkable water, beautiful flora, all just waiting for us to go there. We discovered it a little too late, unfortunately. In a poignant aside, we’re told there was to have been a colonization mission launched already but it obviously never flew due to the nuclear calamity.
Felicity Jones plays ‘Sully’, an astronaut who is pregnant and happily partnered with the mission’s Commander Adewole (David Oyewolo). She’s in charge of communications and spends much of the movie trying to contact Earth.
The crew is unaware of the disaster back home and although concerned about the total lack of communications , they tell themselves the fault must be at their end. A broken communications system perhaps. “It’s us, not the Earth.” Their protestations grow weaker as they get closer to home until the awful moment they see the truth on the screen.
The film preserves the overall structure of the excellent novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, although many of the smaller details have been changed. I missed some of the activities Lofthouse and Iris carried out in the book and was less than crazy about a couple new wrinkles added for the movie, like a crashed plane, but those are quibbles on my part. I thought the movie did a nice job of conveying the one big plot twist of both the novel and the film through the flashbacks. It’s less of a surprise in the movie than in the book but it all works.
Overall I enjoyed the movie, much the same way I enjoy the 1957 novel “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute and the various filmic depictions of that book. (My favorite is the TV miniseries from 2000.) You know you’re not going to receive a happy ending but all the way through you hope somehow things will turn out differently than expected. No spoilers but there might be a glimmer of hope here this time. I did think it was a bit much for one of the astronauts to be watching the 1959 movie version of “On the Beach”. Really?
Although Lofthouse is making his personal last stand at a giant beast of an observatory, oddly enough the antenna lacks the oomph to reach the Aether, so he and Iris set off for a much smaller installation even further north, which has the range needed. Their trek is grueling and eventful.
As I’ve mentioned, the movie takes place in the Arctic, on the Aether and in the Lofthouse flashbacks. Let me pause for a moment and talk about how much I enjoyed the ship-based scenes. I’m always fascinated by Hollywood’s predictions about what advances NASA will make and what the ships will look like. The Aether is beautiful to look at, sort of like a dragonfly, although you can see the modern day influences in the shape of the modules and two mini Space Shuttles attached to the hull. The interior is appropriately gleaming and high tech, although I thought the color scheme was depressing and I can’t imagine NASA designers adding all the pretty fretwork and curlicues to the interior décor. And the alarm siren is the most annoying sound I ever heard. Clearly designed by the lowest bidder. I did love the hologram nook, where each member of the crew had a menu of personalized vignettes they could sit in the middle of and pretend to be home. Pilot Tom Mitchell (an excellent Kyle Chandler) gets to eat breakfast with his family every day, sort of and Flight Engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone) likes to sit in the midst of her giggly sisters and best friends and hear old gossip.
I was a bit bemused by Sully’s perfectly fitting maternity overalls. Somehow I doubt NASA put those on the cargo manifest so either someone is really good with a needle and thread up there or…? And her spacesuit still fits? Hmmm. Another quibble.
There’s a lot of action and tension on the Aether as the movie progresses and the spacewalk sequence is really well done and exciting. And a bit gruesome toward the end but believably so as the inexorable events play out.
The final conversations between Lofthouse and Sully are poignant and I can’t say any more without being spoiler-y.
I recommend “The Midnight Sky” and gave it an A- despite being a person who usually prefers more upbeat entertainment. This was a well done movie (filming ended right before the pandemic began as I understand it) and a good addition to the dystopian genre.
Directed by George Clooney, who was also one of the producers, the film is available on Netflix.