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Looking up at the end – ‘The Midnight Sky’

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The end of the world has always been a subject of fascination for storytellers. The visceral nature of apocalyptic thinking makes for high stakes that bring out the very best and very worst of humanity. Some of these endings are loud and others are quiet, but all of them show us reflections of ourselves.

“The Midnight Sky” – directed by George Clooney, who also stars – is one of the quiet ones, a film that views the end of the world from a pair of very different perspectives. Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s excellent 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” it’s a story of isolation and desperation, a tale not of saving the world, but of accepting the fact that it cannot be saved.

Yet it also manages to be a hopeful story, one in which we see people doing what they believe to be best even as they accept the truth that their actions likely won’t matter in the end. Featuring some stylish visuals and compelling performances, “The Midnight Sky” shows us the different ways in which mankind chooses to escape the trappings of Earth by turning its gaze to the stars.

An unknown happening – known simply as The Event – has overwhelmed the planet Earth. In just a few short weeks, the vast majority of the entire world has been rendered uninhabitable; huge swaths of the surface are irradiated and the air is rapidly becoming unbreathable.

Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), a scientist whose area of expertise is in seeking out potentially habitable planets for humanity, chooses to remain behind at an Arctic research base rather than evacuate with everyone else. Even as he suffers from an illness requiring dialysis, he continues to treat himself and try desperately to make contact with the various active space missions in an effort to warn them against returning. All but one have gone offline.

The sole exception is the spacecraft Aether, on its way back from a two-year mission to explore and research the potential habitability of K-23, a recently discovered moon of Jupiter. The crew is led by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo, “The Water Man”) and consists of four others: Sully (Felicity Jones, “The Aeronauts”), who is partnered with Adewole and carrying his child; Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), Sanchez (Demian Bichir, “The Grudge”) and Maya (Tiffany Boone, TV’s “Hunters”). Their mission was successful – K-23 does indeed have the necessary traits to support human life – and they are anxious to return home.

On Earth, Dr. Lofthouse is struggling to keep himself together. His situation is further complicated by the inexplicable appearance of a mysterious little girl (Caoilinn Springall in her feature debut); she is mute but otherwise unscathed. Reluctantly, he begins to take care of her, even as he deals with his daily treatment and his desperate efforts to contact the Aether.

For their part, the Aether crew has problems of their own. Their inability to make contact with anyone on Earth, initially thought to be an equipment malfunction, begins to take on dire undertones. Other issues lead the ship off course, into an unmapped area that may prove to harbor considerable dangers.

Dr. Lofthouse realizes that he is going to have to take drastic action to have any shot at warning the Aether and her crew before it is too late. With his new young ward in tow, he’s going to have to face the dangers of the world, both old and new, if there’s to be any chance of the intrepid explorers avoiding the inevitable fate of all who live on Earth.

“The Midnight Sky” is a thoughtful, quiet piece of science fiction. While there are some set piece moments, for the most part, this is a film that focuses on that which comes with being the last. Its apocalypse moves too fast and impacts too deeply, leaving no room for thoughts of what comes next. For all but those still in the sky, there is no next. That simple truth lends the story an emotional heft that is too often lacking from this sort of film.

And please note: do not equate quiet with dull. This is an undeniably engaging film, one that takes full advantage of the different flavors of isolation; we watch as these individuals cope with the reality of their situations in their own ways. On both ends, we have people forced to confront the deadly nature of the harsh environments outside their relatively small bubbles, with nothing but their wits, their brains and their courage between them and the unforgiving forces surrounding them.

The film marks a bit of a departure for Clooney the director; genre fare hasn’t generally been his thing. That said, he acquits himself well, not that that should surprise you – he’s a deft hand behind the camera. His low-key approach suits this particular brand of quiet, thoughtful sci-fi; I didn’t expect him to handle the CGI end of things nearly as well as he does. Nothing flashy here, but it’s the kind of film where flashy is the last thing you want.

It’s an excellent performance from the spectacularly-bearded Clooney as well, haggard and rueful and shot through with cynicism and self-loathing. There’s a broken, shuffling quality to him that works beautifully here – particularly in the scenes set alongside the young Springall, who is quietly great. As for the spacefaring group, Jones leads the way, though there’s a cipher-like quality to her that leaves her ever-so-slightly removed. She’s good, mind you, but there’s a slight air of disconnect. Oyelowo commands the screen as well as always, while Chandler continues to be the gold standard for fifth-billed actors. Bichir and Boone are both good as well, though neither gets a lot to do. All told, a pretty strong ensemble.

“The Midnight Sky” doesn’t give us the usual noisy end of the world narrative. It’s a quiet story, one that focuses on what it means to seek hope and pursue altruistic ends in the face of unflinching hopelessness. With Clooney leading the way both onscreen and behind the camera, it is a film built on the idea that, when all else fails, we should turn our gaze upward.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 27 December 2020 12:58

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