A scientist in the Arctic trying to contact a spaceship to warn them of a disaster back on Earth must travel to another base with the small girl he’s looking after.
This is another apocalyptic film that doesn’t really explain what is happening to the world, something I find very frustrating. I always want to know exactly what kind of cataclysm it is. Tell us how – and why – we die! Especially if, as is hinted at during the film, it’s our fault, a mistake we made.
The Midnight Sky falls into the genre of cerebral science fiction, a category more prone than most to aching boredom dressed up as chin-scratching Big Questions. The Midnight Sky isn’t boring – I found it both gripping and profoundly moving – though be aware that despite the end of the world, its action is localised and intermittent (and a happy ending is relative when everyone is going to die).
A computer chart shows red circles expanding outwards from major cities around the globe, and there is talk of radiation, but that’s it. Whatever The Event is, our planet in its death throes makes for a beautiful sight from space: a giant orb surrounded by swirling gold and grey clouds.
Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney, who also directed), a scientist who has spent decades looking for other worlds without ever leaving our planet, is supposedly alone at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic. The ice is still just about holding, though here too the sky is bursting into gorgeous bloom as The Event creeps nearer.
Later, trekking across the ice with a little girl called Iris, both are bathed in shimmering light, their rosy cheeks and golden glow making them look like a wholesome explorer family from some 1950s adventure movie.
Even on board the Æther, a spaceship returning from a possible New Earth, an accident offers a mesmerising dance of dark red globules of blood, floating upwards amid the clinical white and grey of the ship’s zero-gravity airlock.
Extinction brings with it a final surge of energy and beauty.
The rest of the observatory has been evacuated home, though Augustine remains, trying to contact any still-active space missions to warn them not to land. Only the Æther is still going.
Augustine thinks he’s alone at Barbeau, apart from the birds screaming and dying outside, until he finds little Iris (Caoilinn Springall), hiding under a kitchen counter. She barely speaks, though she does draw him a picture of an iris to tell him her name, and a blue-haired woman who is her mother. He assumes she’s been accidentally left behind by the evacuating team and radios for help, but no one responds as no one is left.
He realises that to have a better chance of warning the Æther, he and Iris need to travel to Hazen Lake Weather Station. Protected by mountains, it might still offer a clear communication pathway. They set off on his snowmobile in their fur-trimmed jackets and snow goggles on a journey fraught with dangers, though despite those dangers it’s mostly devoid of tension.
More compelling is his growing protectiveness of Iris, moving from having to, to wanting to. Braced against the wind, Augustine’s determination is utterly fixed now he has a small person to protect. Springall, despite barely speaking, is excellent, a little wrapped-up stoic trudging along hand in hand with Augustine.
Compared to the less weighty comet countdown movie Greenland, which expands to show a populace putting strangers first even though they know they’re all doomed, this is a very personal End Times drama about small families and personal links. Though its “dying man with one last job to do” theme is not new, Clooney is tremendous, Augustine weighed down by his past mistakes even as it becomes clear that his work offers the only hope for the human race.
The single-mindedness which stopped him ever forming a family with his ex-girlfriend Jean Sullivan is shown in flashbacks and it drives him on now.
Up in space, Sully (Felicity Jones) is trying to make contact with Earth but every receiving station is silent. The Æther crew’s growing unease is palpable, fear of the unknown clashing with a desperate need to go home.
They are a family, and this is a film very much about the pull of loved ones. Sully is pregnant by her partner, Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), a new life created on the way back from K-23; Captain Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) enjoys hologram breakfasts with his teenage children; Sanchez (Demian Bichir) views Flight Engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone) as his surrogate daughter.
Clooney’s film offers a warm hand-hold rather than a clunky signpost. Like pictures of some huge space discovery circled in red so it stands out to the layman among space junk and stars, the idea that Augustine has worked to give life a second chance (he originally found K-23), while ignoring the child he had, is thoroughly explained. Even so, characters on the Æther are sketchily drawn and the stories of Augustine on the ground and the crew on the spaceship unfold in big chunks – absorbed in one character’s dilemmas, I was suddenly thrown across space to another’s.
For once though, an apocalyptic film is not about sacrifice. Augustine is dying anyway regardless of The Event, and remaining behind at the Arctic research centre actually brings him a few more days’ grace to do what he has to do.
How much is allegory, how much is hallucination in a body that is dying, how much is actually happening? There’s a twist in The Midnight Sky that you will probably spot if you don’t know it already. Augustine seems to work it out before the end. Memories can make you aware of what you have lost but they can also sustain you.
I didn’t check my watch once during this, except to see if I’d reached the dreaded half-way mark, at which point the consensus seemed to be Clooney’s film would fall apart (it doesn’t). This is a well-paced story, introspective but accessible, wistful rather than gloomy.
The Midnight Sky covers old ground but it does so with beauty and melancholy, and – despite it being about the end of the world – a defiantly intimate scale.
The Midnight Sky was released in UK cinemas on 11 December and is now streaming on Netflix
Read my very spoilery article on The Midnight Sky, and yes I do compare it to Greenland (my Christmas present to myself)
Watch the trailer now: