I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away.Augustine The Older
This review discusses at length the surprise twist ending of the movie. Read no further if you don’t wish this to be spoiled for you!
The Midnight Sky begins at the Barbeau Observatory (not a real place), located at the Arctic Circle. Augustine (George Clooney’s character) warms up a meal in the microwave and eats alone in an empty cafeteria. Superimposed title cards tell us that it is February 2049, three weeks after The Event. Frustratingly, what “the event” was is never directly addressed in the movie. You would think that something that basically ends life as we know it on Planet Earth would be top-of-mind for anyone still alive after it happened, but, frustratingly, no details are provided. This is similar to the cataclysm in The Road, which is briefly seen as a kind of rolling fireball. Any story about the apocalypse should be able to take any one of at least ten things that could endanger all life as we know it and use that as the cause. As you can tell, I find this narrative decision just plain annoying. I have to move on though, as there is plenty left to discuss about this movie.
A flashback to three weeks ago shows the observatory being evacuated, with people being loaded into huge helicopters. A colleague tells Augustine that if he stops the transfusions, he’ll die in a week. Augustine tersely responds that if he was in a hurry to die, he’d evacuate with everybody else. We are never told what Augustine is dying of. If the movie has an overarching theme, it is not providing details for the plot or characters. The World is dying, Augustine is dying, what else do you need to know? Don’t sweat the small stuff, in other words.
I should mention that Clooney is definitely dressed-down for the role. With his hair cut short, long gray beard, parka and snow cap, he looks like a missing character from The Lighthouse. I like Clooney as an actor. He’s been great in many films, including Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11, Gravity, Up in the Air. With Michael Clayton being the rare exception, he’s an actor who does well when he brings what’s inside the character’s mind outside. He’s not someone who I feel is good at delivering a compelling performance based on internalized feelings. In The Midnight Sky, his take on Augustine is to play him as emotionally repressed and distant. While that may make sense for the character, who has a terminal illness and is watching Earth in its death throes, the character is not interesting to watch on screen.
Augustine spends his time giving himself transfusions, drinking and playing chess by himself. In a flashback to what I’m assuming was thirty years ago, we see a younger Augustine giving a lecture at the The 14th UCSF-Caltech Innovation Symposium, which would be in 2023. Young Augustine discusses K-23, a previously undiscovered moon around Jupiter that may support life. I should mention that the Younger Augustine is not a de-aged George Clooney, but does have his voice. Score one for the more naturalistic approach to acting.
If having Jupiter be the focal point of a sci-fi adventure sounds familiar to you, it should be. In short order I thought of 2001, 2010 and Interstellar. Novelists, scientists and futurists have been talking up Jupiter for decades. Regardless, I wondered how there could still be an undiscovered moon around Jupiter. Wikipedia tells me that Jupiter has 79 moons, so I guess this is feasible. I’m not sure if the smaller moonlets are big enough to support a significant amount of humans, but I’ll leave that to the astronomers to figure out. (Don’t sweat the small stuff!)
At the symposium reception, Jean, a beautiful blond English lass strikes up a conversation with Young Augustine. The two of them hook up (off-screen). Jean later tells Augustine she’s not pregnant while he stares at his laptop. (Quiet, Augustine is thinking important thoughts.) It turns out Jean actually was pregnant, but had no problem lying to Augustine about it because, as she surmised, he’s an emotionally unavailable scientist unable to disconnect from his work. Echoes of The Fountain are definitely at play here.
In the present, Augustine monitors active missions in space. Only a ship named Aether is still active. (Given its prominent use in the Marvel movies, I would have picked a different name.) Augustine asks the computer to notify him when the Aether is in active range. (There are no keyboards or mice in the future, so score one for the future!) The movie jumps to K-23, where Felicity Jones deals with a terrifying dream sequence. She is actually aboard the Aether, likely suffering from pregnancy-induced sleep hysteria. (Yes, I’m making that up.) We meet the dedicated but dull crew of the Aether: Sully (Felicity Jones), Mitchel (Kyle Chandler), Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo), Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Maya (Tiffany Boone). Compared to the crew going to Mars in the Netflix series Away, the crew of the Aether is definitely charisma-impaired. I guessed instantly that Felicity Jones was Jean and Augustine’s daughter. (If you see two English actors in an American movie, they must be related somehow, right?)
For technical mumbo-jumbo reasons, the Aether cannot communicate with anyone on Earth, or the K-23 colony flight that should have left Earth, which is troubling to the crew, but not that troubling. (They look mildly perturbed to me.) As the Aether heads towards Earth, it becomes clear that Augustine stayed behind to warn the crew of the Aether not to come back. Plot-wise, this is very thin stuff to hang an entire movie on. Rest assured, Midnight covers up for its basic plot inadequacies by throwing in a lot of routine action sequences to generate excitement.
For starters, it turns out that a child was left behind at the observatory. (Or so we are led to believe. More on that later.) She calls herself Iris, Augustine befriends her in a curmudgeonly way. She chooses to sleep in Augustine’s room, even though she had apparently been sleeping alone for three weeks prior. They share a laugh over a pea fight at dinner. (Excellent choice there, as peas are definitely the funniest dinner vegetable besides mashed potatoes.) As you can tell, Midnight is all over the place tonally. Eventually, the fallout from “the event” starts encroaching on the observatory, and Augustine and Iris must travel by snowmobile to a weather station at Lake Hazen in order to be able to communicate with the Aether before they die. (Lake Hazen is an actual place, but there is no weather station there today.) The two of them encounter hungry wolves, inspect a plane that has crash-landed, and almost sink into the water when a cabin they spend the night in slowly sinks underwater. I didn’t understand the last part. The structure they find looks like it has been there for a while. The only thing I could think of to explain the contrivance of the ice suddenly breaking was radiation, but if that were the case, if the arctic atmosphere were warming up, Augustine’s beard wouldn’t get covered in ice. (Damn you, small stuff!)
Meanwhile, back on the Aether, Sully attempts to reach anyone on Earth, even China, India and Russia. Wait, India is now on the naughty list? I’m guessing when people in Bangalore heard that line, they all shouted, “George, what did we ever do to you, for you to include us in the Axis of Evil?” With no evidence, the crew is convinced the communication breakdown is on their end, which I suppose makes sense in that nobody would assume a nuclear winter started just a few weeks prior. Why nobody on Earth sent out a “do not disturb” message before heading to their underground bunkers is unclear. I get that time was of the essence, but nobody could send out a text message or email?
While Augustine and Iris battle the elements on Earth, the Aether is thrown off course due to malfunctioning satellites back home, I think? (The technical mambo-jumbo explanation wasn’t clear.) The crew decides on a course back home that takes them through some uncharted space. Even though they are travelling at 30k MPH, when being hit by even a golf ball would be catastrophic, this course is somehow viewed as the best option to get home. As you can guess, they run into what looks like an ice storm which severely impairs the ship. They are able to fix it, enjoying “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond in the process. (There are just too many movies that rely on songs from the sixties for touchy-feely bonding moments.) At least Apollo 13 played a song (“Spirit in the Sky”) which was in the general timeframe of the movie. After watching the spacewalkers repair things in what felt like real time, the ship flies through another field of icy debris, and a member of the crew is struck and killed. Since Clooney co-starred in Gravity, I fail to understand why he would essentially copy the same type of space accident for his movie. Regardless, I had to wonder, why did this “experienced crew” make such a bush league decision to fly through uncharted space? The only reason I can think of was to add action and drama to their journey home. Otherwise, they would have just been flying along, listening to the Neil Diamond greatest hits collection repeat.
Eventually the Aether makes it to Earth in a hobbled state. Augustine recommends that instead of landing, the Aether essentially use the same maneuver from The Martian to slingshot themselves back on course for K-23. I wish someone would have mentioned the other movie, as I’m sure all astronauts are well versed in all movies involving astronauts. It would have brought some well-earned levity to this very ponderous movie, but alas, it was not meant to be.
After Augustine confirms that there is no safe place for the crew to land, the pilot Mitchell is adamant about returning home, even though the Earth they are returning to is essentially uninhabitable. This decision makes just about as much sense as the earlier decision by Captain Adewole to fly home through uncharted space, which was none. You would think that all astronauts would be trained to avoid making decisions based on nothing but emotion, but that’s not the case with this crew. (Emotional IQ be damned!) Inexplicably, Mitchell and Sanchez decide against helping save what’s left of the human race on K-23 and instead return to Earth to bury fallen colleague Maya. Its a suicide mission basically, since their space suits will likely only protect them from for a short time before they die a horrible death from radiation poising. While this act of pure inanity does conveniently set up Sully and Adewole to be stand-ins for Adam and Eve, it defies logic and common sense.
In the end, we learn that Iris was just a figment of Augustine’s imagination, a mental projection of his actual daughter about the Aether. All of the previous interactions we saw between Augustine and Iris were actually just delusions of some kind. With this revelation, I thought back on all of the preceding scenes where director Clooney presented Iris as an actual person, from the extra bowl of cereal magically appearing in the dining area, to the frying pan on fire in the kitchen, to the pea-shooting scene. How was all of that possible, if Iris wasn’t actually there? How was Augustine able to do all of the things we just witnessed him doing (using complex computers to monitor the fate of the Earth and communicate with the Aether, give himself blood transfusions, drive a snowmobile across the harsh arctic landscape) if he’s suffering from a mental illness of this magnitude?
Making Iris a projection of Augustine’s mind is such a cheat, I wish I could sue Clooney the director for fraud. It’s a cheat because it absolves the movie of having to deal with the real and horrifying ramifications of having Augustine care for a child that may die before he does, alone. I’m not saying that The Midnight Sky needed to embrace the grim horror of The Road, but by embracing mawkish sentimentality over actual consequences, it cops out on itself and the audience. Given the childlike approach to the material, maybe producer Clooney should have named the film Looking for an Imaginary Friend for the End of the World.
The last scenes in The Midnight Sky are the most bizarre. Realizing that he’s been interacting with a mental projection all this time, Augustine walks out in the orange nuclear dawn (sunset?) that surely will kill him instantly. Back on the Aether, Sully and Adewole begin pushing buttons on their consoles while the credits are superimposed over their movements. I kept hoping that the soundtrack would revert to the ambient “boops” and “beeps” played on the bridge of the Enterprise, but I was cheated again! After a minute or two, they both walk away from the consoles to, where, exactly? The camera does not follow. Maybe they decided that since they will be responsible for recreating the human race, they might as well finish that game of rummy they started before everything went sideways. I half expected another ship to suddenly appear, with a couple robots and a much older Bruce Dern still tending to his garden. Time to make Silent Running 2!
I can see why Clooney the director, producer and star decided to make this his next project. It is filled with big action sequences, scenes of personal sacrifice and regret over lost opportunities. Its lament over how the human race could screw up our own planet is understandable, and if you spend your nights doom-scrolling the internet, you may feel that this fate is inescapable and headed our way. I believe that climate change is real, and that as a species, we can definitely do far more to take care of our planet and the other life forms we inhabit it with. That said, in spite of having the best of intentions, Clooney tried to make a feel-good movie about the apocalypse, and it just didn’t work for me on any level. The Midnight Sky is Clooney’s seventh directorial effort. Like the previous six, he does not distinguish himself well here, making poor directorial choices and choosing big emotions over narrative logic. He should have let someone else direct this story, someone who would have given this story an edge that is somehow missing from a movie where the Earth dies.