George Clooney looks at the end of the world in Netflix’s cautionary Armageddon tale
The Midnight Sky
Starring George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler
Directed by George Clooney
Available on Netflix Dec. 23, 2020
George Clooney shoots for the stars in this ambitious, sprawling post-apocalyptic saga about a dying planet, a search for habitable life elsewhere, and a lonely scientist desperately trying to send a warning to a group of NASA explorers.
The dying planet is Earth, the scientist is 70-something Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), and the warning to the astronauts is to keep them from coming home—since things have changed a lot in the two years since they left, in 2047. We’re never told what happened, exactly, but ever-expanding, big red circles on the digital displays of Augustine’s computers let us know it’s not good: Something has toxified the whole world.
Climate change? Global warming? Depleted ozone? Nuclear armageddon? All of the above? Whatever. Everything, everywhere is toast, and the dwindling pockets of still-breathable air anywhere are where nobody can live, not for long—in the inhospitably frigid Arctic Circle. That’s where Augustine has opted to remain, holed up alone at a remote observatory, while the planet’s decimated surviving population has been evacuated deep underground to live out the rest of their pitiful days.
Augustine is trying—in vain—to ping the spaceshift Aether, already zipping along at 30,000 miles an hour on its way back home from its mission to set up an experimental colony on one of the moons of Jupiter. But his messages aren’t getting through; the observatory’s signal is too weak. And he knows his days are numbered, too, one way or another. Augustine is dying of something, likely cancer, that requires regular blood transfusions. But can he live long enough to at least keep those astronauts alive, and diverted away from their suicidal course?
Augustine thinks he’s alone at the observatory, and maybe even in the world—until he’s shocked to come across a tiny stowaway child (newcomer Caoilinn Springall), three weeks after the evacuations.
The tiny-tot newcomer doesn’t talk—is she mute, shell-shocked, or just shy? But Augustine is able to determine from a picture she draws that her name is Iris, like the flower. He warns her away from the all the high-tech equipment, gets her to giggle (once) in a mini food fight, and points out the most important star, up in the midnight sky—Polaris, the North Star, the one that remains fixed in place while the others circle around it. “If you ever get lost,” he tells Iris, “it will help you find your way.”
In order to reach the astronauts, Augustine and the young foundling must venture outside into the brutal, sub-freezing cold and undertake a treacherous journey, trekking to another abandoned but hopefully-still-operational observatory, many miles distant. It might have enough power to communicate with the spaceship and shoo it away, back to Jupiter, back to where its astronauts can possibly start life anew.
Clooney, who hasn’t made a movie appearance in three years (since Money Monster and Hail Caesar!, both in 2016), comes roaring back in The Midnight Sky, not only anchoring in a starring role but also directing and producing. With one foot in space and the other on bleak, toxified terra firma, he unifies the two stories in a way he’s described as Gravity meets The Revenant. He’s already won two Oscars (Best Actor, for Syrianna, and Best Picture, as one of the producers of Argo), and he could well be in the running again with this entry’s high-pedigree, Academy Award-caliber music, effects and storytelling, and its super-solid supporting cast.
Augustine and Iris must content with ravenous Arctic wolves, blinding snowstorms and melting glaciers. High above them, the Aether is dangerously off-course, damaged from a run-in with meteoric space ice. It’s also flying blind, unable to receive any signals from Earth, where all the communications centers are kaput; no one up there knows that everything down there is gone.
Clooney grizzlies out, “ages up” and goes full geezer for the role, with a supersized grey beard that makes him look like an Arctic explorer of yore, a severe self-inflicted buzz haircut and a slow amble that fits the advanced years and high mileage of a weary, terminally ill loner hermit. This cheerless, ice-caked performance isn’t his most robust—not anywhere near it—but it may be one of his most poignantly personal, as one of Hollywood’s most renowned environmental advocates. The movie walks a razor’s edge of topicality about what’s happening already on our planet; one shot of Earth, as seen by the astronauts from space as a darkened, smoldering, burned-out orb, doesn’t look much different from real-life satellite photos of this year’s California wildfires, writ large. This tale may be futuristic science fiction, but it feels not so fictional, and not so futuristic…
And there’s plenty of drama up above, too. Aether’s mission specialist (Felicty Jones) is a few months pregnant with a baby on board; the father is flight commander Tom (David Oyelowo), who ponders finding a name for the child, and finding a quick shortcut home; the veteran pilot (Kyle Chandler) frets about the wife and kids he’s left behind; aerodynamicist Sanchez (Demián Bichir) hides a personal heartbreak that he salves through the holigraphic memories of the young flight engineer (Tiffany Boone), who’s queasy about making her first spacewalk to make some emergency repairs.
The film is technically, visually wondrous, especially the space segments, inside and outside the Aether; depictions of space, spaceships and space travel have become fairly common territory for movies for decades. But The Midnight Sky stakes its own claim, especially on one particular effect, and sequence, that I suspect might help get it a technical-category Oscar: a pristine white airlock filling with red bursts of zero-G blood droplets, signaling life floating away, one crimson globule at a time.
The movie has life on its mind, in every way—old life ending, new life beginning. Why, one character asks, do some people die so young, and others live so long? What happens if, and when, an entire planet perishes? Is there more life out there, among the stars? Or is it too late for any of that?
It’s a lot, sometimes, to cram into a crowded spacepod—flashbacks (in which a younger actor, Ethan Peck, plays a younger Augustine) and fever dreams; a dying old man and a wide-eyed little girl; seeds and flowers; a Neil Diamond classic and a George Jones drinking song; a clip from a 1959 movie (about the end of the world) starring Ethan Peck’s grandfather, Gregory Peck, and Ava Garner. But director Clooney ropes it all together, somehow, up there and down here, into a big, bold fable about an expired globe of poisoned air, unliveable earth and undrinkable water, and the possibilities of the vast, unfathomable, unknowable future of space.
“I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place,” Augustine laments.
As the movie builds toward something you might not see coming, it ends with something you won’t be surprised to see—a look upward, into a majestic nighttime canopy of the cosmos.
It’s Clooney’s way of suggesting that perhaps The Midnight Sky, like the North Star, can point everyone toward doing a little better job—before it really is too late.