George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky Is a Sad, Quietly Effective Apocalypse Drama

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The world has pretty much already ended at the beginning of director and star George Clooney’s mournful new survival drama, The Midnight Sky (Netflix, December 23). Something—a gas? Nuclear radiation? A chemical plague?—has swiftly wiped out most of Earth’s population, clouds of death expanding across the planet on their way toward the poles. In the icy far north, scientist Augustine (Clooney)—bearded and solitary like a lonely Santa Claus—awaits his inevitable end while trying to rescue one last shred of humanity. A crew of astronauts is returning home from their vital mission on a distant moon that can support human life. Augustine has to inform them that, well, there’s nothing to come back to. They may as well turn around and make haste toward the future. 

Maybe there’s a sorry sort of joke in there, like the ones seen in many doom-and-gloom tweets and memes about the way things are now. Come back to this horror show? Don’t bother! If that kind of weary irony is at all intended in Midnight Sky, though, it’s heavily disguised. Clooney’s film—based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, adapted by Mark L. Smith—is mostly a somber sort of thing, conscientious of its Hollywood duty to provide a few thrills, but largely played out in hushed despondency. From that sadness—Midnight Sky is, in some senses, about the saddest thing imaginable—a peculiar little hope emerges, a quiet wish that maybe next time our errant species will get it right. If, of course, there is a next time.

There’s something Old Testament about the film’s ultimate premise, a drift back into prelapsarian times after a second kind of flood. At the moment, we’re not so lucky to have found a potential new home, the way the people of Midnight Sky’s 2049 have. So we’ll just have to cling to imaginings like The Midnight Sky, so cognizant of what feels like the looming end but careful to dream of deliverance. 

That may not make The Midnight Sky the most diverting option right now, especially over a holiday that promises to be even gloomier or more stressful (or both) than usual. If the film’s terrible fatalism sounds unappealing, fair enough. But if you are in the mood for a wistful bummer, and want to watch something new, Clooney’s film might satisfy. There is nothing really innovative about it, nor does it conjure quite the emotional resonance many found in Brooks-Dalton’s popular book. (This is an adaptation that serves as strong advertisement for the source material.) But the ending of the film stuck with me for days, pushing me into a kind of melancholy existential funk that proved distressingly hard to shake. 

It’s partly Alexandre Desplat’s score, sounding like something from a children’s fable—or perhaps more keenly, Alan Silvestri’s main theme from 1997’s Contact, perhaps my favorite thinky-sad sci-fi film. In its most sentimental moments, Desplat’s music has the same enveloping twinkle, its lilting piano and soft strings stretching like a crinkling smile, wise and forlorn and full of wonder. Especially in the film’s graceful closing minutes, when the enormity of what’s just happened—what’s really just been lost—settles like a heavy snow. Those last scenes give The Midnight Sky pretty much all of its punch, which is sometimes all a film needs to do the job.

What’s come before is less effective. Augustine treks across the Arctic Circle from his sleek laboratory home to a second research station, where a powerful antenna can be used to contact the astronauts. He’s got a little girl, Iris, by his side, a foundling left behind when her family headed south from the base to face their inexorable end. (What a grim picture the opening few minutes of The Midnight Sky paint: phalanxes of people boarding helicopters to be whisked off to a less isolated death.) The gruff older man and the cute kid form a bond, as they have in so many movies, while Augustine feels the creep of his own personal apocalypse: he’s dying of cancer. So, time is doubly fleeting. 

On the spaceship, communications officer Sully (Felicity Jones) is pregnant. The baby’s father is the mission’s commander, Adewole (David Oyelowo), so at least they’ve got each other. The rest of the crew—Demián Bechir, Tiffany Boone, and Kyle Chandler—all have their own little arcs, one with a particularly gnarly end. That gruesome scene—it’s the only gruesome one in the movie, I promise—comes after Midnight Sky has done its best Gravity, Clooney applying some tricks of the trade picked up from his former captain, Alfonso Cuarón. Those space action scenes—and the Arctic ones—are all done plenty competently, but without distinction. They’re mere vehicles to get the audience to the ache of the film’s finale, when all this sacrifice and struggle reveals its true purpose. I think the movie makes its case successfully.

The film’s conclusions are simple, but worthy of the drama: life carries on if it can, and thus ideally so does some sense of ourselves, whatever meager or profound contribution we made to the world—or beyond. If we are all part of one great, unified human story, then The Midnight Sky has the generosity to let that tale continue. Some small stuff of us may tumble on into the vastness, borne by the actual survivors. Perhaps there is some cosmic comfort to be found in that idea these days, as our own eleventh hour threatens so insistently to click over to twelve.

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