I’m not sure if an apocalyptic thriller is something we need to close out 2020. It’s definitely not the feel-good movie of the year. There is however an omnipresent sense of hope that mankind will survive in “The Midnight Sky,” which features a group of astronauts returning to Earth after spending two years exploring Jupiter’s moon for colonization.
A scientist (played by George Clooney who also serves as director) tries to warn them not to return home after a cataclysmic event decimated our planet. The sci-fi thriller keeps the viewer enthralled as the human race hangs in the balance.
The story begins in February 2049, so at least we survived COVID-19. It’s been three weeks since “the event,” which left Earth, for the most part, uninhabitable. It’s never explained what exactly devastated the planet, just that “we screwed up.”
As groups of people in the Arctic scramble to evacuate, Augustine (Clooney) stays behind at an abandoned observatory, sealing his fate, in order to get a message to the NASA crew aboard the Aether spaceship, which is headed back to Earth after spending the last two years surveying one of Jupiter’s moons for colonization. Since they have been out of communication range, the astronauts led by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) are unaware of the grave situation on Earth. Augustine must warn them to avoid returning to Earth’s toxic atmosphere which is quickly closing in on the Arctic. Will he be able to make contact before it’s too late? The clock is ticking.
Felicity Jones plays astronaut Sully, a communication specialist who is expecting a child with Adewole. The rest of Aether’s crew includes Kyle Chandler as homesick pilot Tom Mitchell, Demian Bichir as lonely navigator Sanchez and Tiffany Boone as spunky flight engineer Maya.
Once Aether gets within communication range, they discover that they can’t reach NASA but discount it as a problem with their equipment. Meanwhile back on Earth, Augustine desperately tries to reach the crew but the ground-based antenna at his outpost isn’t strong enough. As he scrambles to find a solution, matters become more complicated with the discovery of a 6-year-old stowaway named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who doesn’t speak — she gets my vote for the most adorable sci-fi proxy since LV-426 colonist Newt who became Ripley’s surrogate daughter in “Aliens.”
Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel “Good Morning, Midnight” and adapted by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”), “The Midnight Sky” is well-crafted science fiction that embodies the spirit of survival. I relished the sedate moments of isolation carried by Clooney for the film’s first part. Flashbacks paint a portrait of a man who gave up family for science.
Once Springall shows up it changes the narrative’s tone as Augustine is forced to make decisions based on the well-being of another individual, uncharted territory for the self-indulgent scientist. Kudos to 8-year-old Springall who steals your heart with an impressive debut that’s made more difficult by the fact that she has to carry her scenes without the use of dialogue.
For the most part, this is Clooney’s showcase and while the solid cast gets an adequate amount of screen time, it’s English actress Felicity Jones who manages to steal the spotlight as the mother-to-be astronaut who becomes the direct link between the space crew and Earth. Sully is probably the film’s most important character and Jones is superb. FYI, Jones was three months pregnant when shooting began and while her pregnancy wasn’t originally part of the story it was a brilliant idea by Clooney to incorporate it into the film. It adds an added dimension of much-needed hope.
The only drawbacks for me — I wanted more information about “the event” that led to Earth’s post-apocalyptic climate and a juicier role for Demián Bichir who I’ve been following since he played Esteban on Showtime’s “Weeds.”
Clooney brought together the best of the best for “The Midnight Sky” including cinematographer Anton Corbijn who worked with Clooney on “The American” and then there’s production designer Jim Bissell who marks his sixth collaboration with the actor-director. The special effects and visuals are stunning thanks to Matt Kasmir (“The Golden Compass”), and Chris Lawrence who worked with Clooney on “Gravity” and received an Oscar nomination for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Throw in a score by two-time Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat and you have the making of a grade-A sci-fi film.
With all the challenges we’ve been through in 2020, “The Midnight Sky” can be a tough watch as we view what could be humanity’s demise. But fortunately, “hope” permeates this story of our nature to survive by whatever means necessary.