The Midnight Sky

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Midnight Sky
"This is what cinema does best - showing us technicolor worlds that make us see and appreciate the black and white home."

George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, adapted by Mark L Smith from the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, looks (production design by Jim Bissell) and sounds great (score by Alexandre Desplat). The year is 2049, the same as Ridley Scott’s second Blade Runner, to all appearances a vintage of choice for post-apocalyptic movies. Albeit, for the same reason, not so healthy a year for Earth. In outer space, there is Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his crew, pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), radar expert Sully (Felicity Jones), navigation specialist Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone) on the spaceship Aether, on its way back from their two-year mission surveying K23, a moon of Jupiter.

Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), a renowned astronomer, decides to stay behind alone at the Barbeau Observatory on the Arctic Circle, when the rest of the researchers and their families are being evacuated. It is three weeks after, what is only referred to as “the event”, made most of the surface of our planet uninhabitable. Augustine, sporting an extravagant (but not yet white) Father Christmas beard, is himself a terminal patient, wandering around the empty outpost on the ice.

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He listens to a song about Tennessee whiskey, has some of that to drink, gives himself blood transfusions, and looks out at the snow from the wide panoramic window of the abandoned cafeteria. In our year of 2020 quarantines and isolation, this looks like a peachy place to be in for the end of the world. When he checks the computers to see if he can make contact anywhere, he discovers that transmission from the Aether is still functional, while all other space stations are inactive. His urgent attempts to contact them go unanswered.

On board Aether, Sully (names are important in this film - could the writers have had in mind the commercial airline pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger who landed on the Hudson River in 2009?) wakes up from a nightmare. We first see her taking samples by a waterfall in an enchanted landscape. She walks through a cornfield, the sky is orange, and her spaceship departs without her. Nightmares can be very close to reality, the imagination likes to play tricks, and dreams can remain in our memory, not just in movies.

We get to meet the rest of the explorers and the layout of the spacecraft which has areas that resemble the facade of the Herzog & de Meuron building on 40 Bond Street in New York, combined with structures that could be inspired by Karl Blossfeldt’s early 20th century photographs of plants. Designer Bissell works miracles creating a brand new idea of a spaceship with components of a beehive, a spiderweb, skeleton chunks, and a corn on the cob. The effect is organic, futuristic and soothing. Living matter is tucked in the film’s crevices - be it Portobello Beach near Edinburgh, an Arctic station resembling a mushroom, or the name Hyacinth. Which is the name of the pilot’s mother.

Mitchell is played by Kyle Chandler who often adds gravitas and dignity to seemingly mundane actions. Here, the astronauts are given virtual reality memorabilia from back home to interact with. Mitchell has breakfast with his hologram family and works out by boxing with a monkey, while the youngest of the crew members, Maya, reads a book surrounded by her sister, best friend from high school, and her cat Einstein. Sanchez is not seen interacting with the virtual reality features. He thinks about the meaning of time and “why one person gets to live a lifetime and another only gets a few years” when remembering his daughter Maria. Commander Adewole, the father of Sully’s unborn child, also prefers to play cards and reject baby names the crew suggests to reminiscing about what was left behind on Earth.

Besides the two main strands of narrative - on the ice with Clooney and on the spaceship with the crew - is a third that consist of flashbacks to a younger Augustine, played by Gregory Peck’s grandson Ethan Peck, with a blended voice by Clooney himself. The portrait of scientist as a young man provides background on a youthful infatuation and decisions with big consequences. Clooney knows what he is doing with missing children, red herrings, Arctic wolves, and hints at more than meets the eye.

Inside the Arctic observatory, Augustine discovers something strange. What is the second breakfast bowl with cereal doing on the table? Has Goldilocks paid a visit? The fire alarm goes off in the kitchen and lo and behold, there is a little girl in a yellow dress. She doesn’t speak at all at first, but draws the picture of an iris, which turns out to be her name. Iris is played by prepossessing newcomer Caoilinn Springall who has great rapport with Clooney as his little sidekick.

At night, he doesn’t want her sleeping in his room (this is the antithesis to New Directors/New Films’ android 'daughter'- father relations in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble With Being Born) but doesn’t fully close the door. She sneaks back in and deposits her bedding on the floor. The next day at lunch, Augustine and Iris line up peas as if they were going to start playing the game from Alain ResnaisLast Year In Marienbad, only to break out into a mini food fight to end the tension between them.

Since Augustine has lost his initial contact with the spaceship from their location, they will have to face the ice, wind, and snow to get to Lake Hazen, a weather station with a larger antenna, protected by a mountain range. The conditions are dire, his beard is frozen solid (they filmed on a glacier in Iceland, and real water froze on Clooney’s real beard), birds are near death, and little Iris, dressed in a grey snowsuit with red arrow and Klimt-like detailing on the sleeve cuffs (costumes by Jenny Eagan) holds tight on the snowmobile.

Up there in space, the one missing Earth the most and most reliant on virtual stimuli, is Mitchell, who watches Gregory Peck say “I’m so sorry for so many things. I love you, Moira” to Ava Gardner in Stanley Kramer’s 1959 nuclear disaster movie On The Beach. Sully is the sound expert (the equivalent of François Civil’s submarine Golden Ear Chanteraide in Antonin Baudry’s The Wolf’s Call). The Midnight Sky score by Desplat is only enhanced by the subtle sound design. The subliminal effect of faint helicopter noise and underwater bubbles when neither are anywhere near, creates the desired unease when Augustine discovers a crashed aeroplane.

After meteors damage the wall of a lab and the ship’s radar, we are treated to a repair spacewalk with the crew singing along to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. It is silly and a moment of lightness to strengthen us for things to come.

Ice melting under a hut at night in the dark, a planet being destroyed - Clooney gets the vital dispatch across most elegantly. He makes you feel it. “I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away”, Augustine condenses. K23 unearthed “feels like Colorado” with crisp air, the smell of pine trees and an orange sky due to the proximity to Jupiter, that “makes all the colours explode,” is what Sully reveals.

She describes it “like landing in Oz and seeing real colours for the first time.” This is what cinema does best - showing us technicolor worlds that make us see and appreciate the black and white home (or the other way around, if you take David Fincher’s Mank) in a new light and with all its possibilities and options. Optimism drips out of every icicle here, which makes it a veritable pandemic holiday movie.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2020
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As a catastrophe unfolds on Earth, a dying man crosses the Arctic in an attempt to make contact with a spacecraft which may have found a habitable world elsewhere.

Director: George Clooney

Writer: Mark L Smith, based on the book by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir, Hanna María Karlsdóttir, Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, Edan Hayhurst

Year: 2020

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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