I never expected to be comparing George Clooney’s cerebral offering The Midnight Sky to Gerard Butler’s fellow cataclysmic doom-movie Greenland, but we are where we are: in the middle of a pandemic, seeking solace in End Times drama.
I talk about the implications of The Midnight Sky spoiler at the start, so you can stop reading after that if you haven’t seen Greenland yet. (Or read my 3.5/5 review of The Midnight Sky.)
When Augustine and little Iris finally make it to Lake Hazen Weather Station, they look down at it as the sky clears. They are rosy-cheeked and bathed in a golden-pinky glow. “Look what you did”, Augustine says to Iris and possibly himself. I’m sure by now he must know who she is: the young Iris Sullivan, his daughter by Jean, even if he’s not yet able to admit it to himself. Later, ensconced in the base, he finally makes contact with Sully – the grown up Iris Sullivan – on board the Æther.
He tries to explain what has happened on Earth, what he knows about it, but his words cut out at every explanation. On board they are still none the wiser, and are distracted by a storm as the Æther makes its way through unmapped space. Sully and Maya have to go out on a space walk to fix the communications but Maya is injured by flying debris and dies once they get her inside.
Then Mitchell pulls up their first images of Earth, that swirling golden-grey orb, and they know something is terribly wrong. Sully contacts Augustine asking about safe entry points but there is nothing: “All survivable areas are underground and those are temporary,” he tells her.
It is Ade who asks who he is and how he knows so much about their journey. He tells them he is Dr Augustine Lofthouse, and they all know his name.
“I just point,” Augustine says, of how his work directs astronauts to potential new homes among the stars, but he is actually part of a relay system that pushes humanity on and on to explore. Sully tells him that her mother Jean brought home a piece of his moon rock and it made her want to go into space.
Mitchell hears a last message from his wife, sent days ago; they’re evacuating and their sons are ill. Despite Augustine’s warnings of what has happened on Earth, Mitchell and Sanchez decide to return in one of the escape shuttles – Mitchell to look for his family, even though they are probably dead, and Sanchez to bury Maya, his surrogate daughter.
Augustine never tells Sully that he is her father. She explains to him who she is, and about the vibrant-coloured planet K-23, and that she and Ade have decided to go back there, to slingshot themselves back using Earth’s gravity and start a new life with their baby (Augustine’s grandchild).
Did he always know who little Iris is? I don’t think so. She seems very real – there’s a moment at Barbeau before he finds her when he discovers an extra bowl of cereal half-finished on the table. Is it his? Or hers? On their journey across the ice, caught in a snowstorm, he temporarily loses her and, panic-struck, instead sees a hallucination of Jean, before finding Iris again and holding her close.
With adult Iris, on the Æther, it’s a different matter. At first he just wants to warn any spacecraft returning home to turn around and find a new home, but when he brings up the list of Æther crew members he trembles when he sees Iris’s surname: Sullivan. Later when he talks to her from Hazen, and she tells him her name, he weeps: “I know,” he says.
As Sully continues speaking, Augustine walks outside and he and Iris look at the pink horizon and the starlit sky. They hold hands, and then he is standing there alone. She has been a hallucination to keep him going, to push him on so he can save both his daughter and humankind.
On the ship, Ade and Sully sit next to each other plotting their course. Ade is the first to get up and climb the stairs; Sully follows a couple of minutes later, turning out the light on the ship.
By the way, regarding re-starting the human race on K-23, earlier in the film there is mention of a pioneer ship already heading to K-23. Assuming it had already taken off, maybe they are still on their way?
I watched The Midnight Sky 10 days after Greenland, and I’ve been thinking a lot about them; about these men’s responses to extinction level events and how sometimes the only way to cope with something that big is to focus on the personal.
Both men – Clooney’s selfish Augustine and Butler’s unfaithful John Garrity – face an extinction level event, and both men are driven, in those final days, to seek out redemption and forgiveness, often from themselves.
Both men go to great lengths to earn that redemption, though while Greenland‘s message is optimistic, that strangers will step up to help despite knowing in a few hours nearly everyone will be dead (Garrity injures himself frantically pulls a man from a burning car a few hours before the driver will die in a fireball anyway) in The Midnight Sky Augustine is more practical. Finding an injured man begging for help in a crashed private plane on the ice, Augustine shoots him dead in a mercy killing. (The pilot is already dead, his face gnawed off by wild dogs.)
The differing responses may be down to the different type of cataclysm they are facing. Greenland‘s comet is unexpected (though you could argue NASA should have spotted it incoming a long time before it did) and out of the hands of the world’s population. The Midnight Sky‘s is due, we are told, to a mistake by people (I haven’t read the book but maybe something to do with trying to fight off climate change? That would fit).
So their guilt is different: Augustine’s is both personal and large-scale: his daughter who he has never met, and his contribution to the cataclysm by virtue of being a scientist himself (hubris is a terrible thing). In Greenland the guilt that drives John is only personal: he has betrayed his wife with another woman, and now has to leave behind friends and neighbours if he wants to save his family.
Both are trying to save a child, though while John’s child Nathan is very real, Iris is not, or not in her young incarnation. She’s a figment of his imagination, or possibly the manifestation of the mind of a man whose body is shutting down as it dies. Both children give their fathers the impetus to continue, as they trudge on together.
The Midnight Sky is currently streaming on Netflix. Greenland is available in digital in the US. It’s out in the UK in early 2021.