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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Movie Review: The Midnight Sky

Usually it’s like pulling teeth to get fresh blog content. This time, though, both Guy Stewart and Pete Wood were champing at the bit to write reviews of this movie. Rather than choose between them, I thought, “Why not both?” 

Guy is an old sci-fi hand who’s best known for his stories in ANALOG, and is someone who’s been part of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning. Pete is the new kid, who we began publishing in Stupefying Stories about ten years ago, but who has since graduated to writing for ASIMOV’S. So for me, having already seen the movie, this is an interesting experiment: let’s take the same science fiction property, and find out if there are any differences in the ways that an ANALOG writer and an ASIMOV’S writer view it.

Without further ado, then… 

MIDNIGHT SKY: A Reflection on the new George Clooney Movie

by Guy Stewart 

As we watched the opening scenes of “Midnight Sky,” my wife and I looked at each other and I said, “George Clooney must have caught the “space virus” after he did “Gravity.” I’m pretty sure the same thing happened to Tom Hanks. After he was in “Apollo 13,” he went on to produce and narrate the HBO mini-series, “From Earth to the Moon,” and has been a space advocate ever since.

Clooney’s new movie—which he directs as well as stars in—is, in fact a logical tangent off of “Gravity”. Not they the stories are even remotely related, but the that they both deal with astronauts and disasters and they both focus on a very limited number of characters is perhaps revealing.

The story? I’m going to avoid spoilers by lifting the plot summary from Wikipedia, “…based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, ‘Midnight Sky’ stars Clooney as a scientist who must venture through the Arctic Circle with a young girl to warn off a returning spaceship following a global catastrophe.”

The bare bones gives nothing away, and neither will I.

I want to talk about me and how I responded to the film.

I found the movie both depressing and hopeful. Weird, huh? The depressing part is, of course the “global catastrophe” mentioned above. That’s unavoidable and drives virtually all of the story on Earth with Augustine and Iris. Iris isn’t mentioned in the blurb above, she’s a little girl who is left behind when the Arctic astronomical observatory is evacuated due to the global catastrophe. Clooney’s character is Augustine, and he’s an appropriately sad man whose life was so consumed by science that all he has left is regrets and a final research project (never specified) that requires him to live at an observatory

When the spacecraft Aether is on its approach path to Earth from the “hidden moon” of Jupiter, K-23; they lose contact with NASA, the ESA, and several other space agencies. They can’t, it seems, raise ANYONE on Earth.

I’m pretty sure they used that idea instead of finding a habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri because you’d have to postulate some sort of FTL space drive and that wouldn’t have served the immediacy of the story line. As a science fiction writer and a retired science teacher, I personally think inventing a super-dooper instantaneous “warp drive” would have solved both the K-23 problem and the lack of communication problem in one fell swoop. But neither the author of the novel that the book is based on nor the screenplay writer has any experience with science fiction.

But, those are the very things that lead to “what the story is about” and my final sense of both despair and hopefulness. The movie is sad in that Augustine’s personal grief at opportunity lost is amplified by the “global catastrophe” of the broader story. Its high hope is in Augustine and Iris’ reaching their final goal which is reflected in the triumphant return of the Aether from its mission to K-23. The “global catastrophe” hints at all kinds of causes and intention

Their hopefulness is marred by a course change, and they would have made good time on their return to Earth, but the change leads to personal grief and “mission grief.” The ship itself, which no one but a science fiction fan would notice, is as realistic a craft as I have seen. My experience with realistic cinematic spacecraft began of course, with Discovery One in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and expanded to these: the “hypertunnel” ship in “Contact;” the Apollo 13 capsule in the movie of the same name; the Endurance in “Interstellar;” the Avalon in “Passengers;” the Eagle in “Space: 1999;” the USS Cygnus in Disney’s “The Black Hole;” and the various ship from “The Expanse.” The Aether in “Midnight Sky” is now part of that repertoire and shows an elaborate, yet obvious construction for long-term interplanetary voyages ranging far beyond Earth orbit. The parts include a spinning module for simulated gravity; massive transparently domed greenhouses for oxygen and food production as well as mental health, and some sort of reinforced transparent polymer “shields.” All of it looks as if it could have come out of NASA, ESA, or SpaceX’s manufacturing plants.

And that, perhaps is the most hopeful part of the movie—it says to me with unequivocal certainty that Humans WILL have a place in space. Not only in “galaxies far, far away” or even at warp speed; rather the hopefulness of the movie suggests that sometime SOON, Humans will leap off of Earth and venture farther than high orbit; farther than the Moon; farther even than Mars and make our homes there.

While “Midnight Sky” doesn’t show Humanity overcoming the weaknesses that brought about the “global catastrophe,” there’s the CHANCE that we will do so—and that, for me, was the loud note of hope that the movie left me with.

Watch it and enjoy it for what “it is” and not for what we “want it to be.”

—Guy Stewart


by Pete Wood

I don’t understand all the hate for The Midnight Sky, the new Netflix apocalyptic film directed by and starring George Clooney. IMDB gives it 5.6 out of 10. Hudson Hawk earns a 5.8. Porky’s, for God’s sake gets a 6.2. Porky’s! Ouch.

I liked The Midnight Sky.

Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight, the film tells the story of Augustine (Clooney), a scientist dying of some unspecified terminal disease, who decides to live out his last days in an evacuated arctic observatory while the world ends around him. How the world is ending is not explained. All we know is that the crew of the observatory fled to underground bunkers after the planet’s oxygen started, well, disappearing. Animals and birds gasp for air in the thinning atmosphere. Sebastian must wear an oxygen mask.

The film is a throwback to hopeless Cold War fare like On the Beach. Folks go about their daily lives, because there’s nothing they can do about Armageddon.

Clooney embraces his dark side again. Many think of Clooney as a comic actor, thanks to movies like Oceans Eleven or my favorite, the underrated Leatherheads. But Clooney has a serious nihilistic side too. Solaris, his remake of the melancholy Soviet masterpiece is no walk in the park. And is there any bleaker story than Fail Safe, the1960s novel and movie about an accidental nuclear strike on Moscow, that Clooney remade live for television in 2000?

I love the somber dysthymic tone of Midnight Sky. It’s a mood piece, a character study about one man’s reaction to the end of the world. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like the Road, why the world is ending doesn’t matter. It’s just a plot device to get to Sebastian’s story

The film inserts twists and turns that keep things moving. It’s not all Clooney sipping whiskey alone in the deserted cafeteria. He discovers a young girl (Caroline Springall), seemingly abandoned by the panicked crew of the observatory. Then he realizes that a space mission (manned by Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo among others) is returning to Earth from exploring a habitable moon of Jupiter. Augustine can’t warn the crew to stay away with the observatory’s weak transmitter. He and his new companion must tramp across the frozen tundra of a dying planet to reach a stronger transmitter at another base. A man who just wants to die in peace must, like Max in the Road Warrior, find meaning in a meaningless world.

The stark film is beautifully shot and well-acted. It gives the viewer time to contemplate. It’s a haunting philosophical kick in the teeth.

My only beef is the insertion of some out-of-place action scenes in a film that isn’t about action. We don’t need to see Clooney and an entire building (!) fall through arctic ice in February. Yeah, right. And the improbable meteor storm that hits the spaceship not once but twice hours apart is just insulting to anyone who knows even the most rudimentary science. There’s not that much debris out there in deep space, y’all. I know I forgave the questionable scientific premises of the movie, but that set up Augustine’s story. I am not so forgiving of plot contrivances that drag the story down.

I suspect The Midnight Sky gets so much hate because some viewers haven’t paid attention. Some reviewers claim Augustine is dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear war, despite the film’s straightforward setup. One reviewer had Earth evacuating to a habitable planet. Never mind that there is only ONE spaceship and it’s returning to Earth; people flee to bunkers, not ships; and it’s a moon of Jupiter, not a planet.

It’s a subtle film and if you miss the big stuff, you probably missed the small stuff too. This is not a thriller or a realistic what if. It’s a multilayered character study and an existential master class. Ignore the hate. Check out this movie. 

—Pete Wood


Pete Wood said...

Good review, Guy. I think Clooney caught the space virus when he made Solaris, a downer of a movie that makes The Midnight Sky look like a Doris Day Rock Hudson movie. I do like Solaris, though. Few others did.
I have not seen Gravity. Yeah, I know.

~brb said...

Solaris can't help but be a megadowner, being based very loosely on a "challenging" Stanislaw Lem novel. The 2002 film version, starring Clooney and being at least three removes from the original work, probably concentrates the depressing effect.

FWIW, Lem disliked all the various movie adaptations of his novel, but especially the 2002 Soderbergh/Clooney version, and refused to watch it. Then again he also hated the English translation of his novel on which the movie was ostensibly based.

GuyStewart said...

Pete Wood (and Bruce):
Good review Pete! I think it's interesting that by different routes and for different reasons we both liked the movie (far more than the "critics" and the STAR WARS/STAR TREK crowd did. (Bruce? What did you think of "Midnight Sun"?)

I found both SOLARISes equally horrible -- of course I found the novel pretty much incomprehensible on an emotional level (though I have to say the same of the first third of WAR AND PEACE, ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENSIOVICH, and pretty much any other Russian writer I've ever tried to read...) and the only version of THE THING I liked was the first one.

So, there you go...

JVS said...

"The Midnight Sky" left an impression in my memories. I like George Clooney occasionally, in this and "O Brother, Where Art Thou." I don't care for "men movies," if you will forgive the term. Topics of war and violence are not of interest to me. But George is nice to look at, even his aging self.

I like SF Movies, but haven't read many books in the genre. This movie captured my attention throughout, and my focus was more drawn to the more personal and emotional aspects of the story. I felt compassion for the loneliness of Clooney's character, the dedication and sacrifices he made for his work to save life on Earth. The story itself was a beautiful weave of his past and present, and the mysterious appearance of the little girl, Iris. She made me immediately curious, especially because she was so quiet.

As for the Earth-bound ship, Aether, I thought they ran into a meteor field, not space junk. Perhaps my cataracts are getting worse! In any case, the tension of the crew's work was credible to me. The special effects were not overdone, though the ship itself was quite industrial in design. I'm not sure if that would be most efficient, but hey--I'm an artist.

"The Midnight Sky" is one of the few movies of late I'd watch again.

Pete Wood said...

You are correct. It was a meteor storm or something like that. It wasn't space junk. My use of the term was glib. I meant that space is really empty and the odds of hitting anything--manmade or natural-- is remote.