Visions of the End of the World: Review of "The Midnight Sky"
The Midnight Sky, available on Netflix, is a tale about a voyage and survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The Midnight Sky is based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton, which was published in 2012. The screenplay was written by Mark L. Smith, and the movie was directed by George Clooney, who also stars in the film.
The film takes place in 2049, when a nuclear catastrophe has destroyed earth and a crew of scientists situated in the Arctic go home to be with their families. Augustine Lofthouse, an aging scientist played by George Clooney, is the only one who decides to stay behind. In his solitude, he is seen playing chess with himself and eating alone in an empty cafeteria. He is in declining health, as he receives dialysis treatments. Just when he thinks he is alone, he discovers a little girl named Iris, played by Caoilinn Springall, who missed the evacuation. While Lofthouse initially rejects being her caretaker, they bond over a hatred of peas and fascination with the cosmos, and he takes on a parent role.
Lofthouse and Iris leave the research station and embark on a voyage to find a more reliable place to communicate with the returning astronaut team, where they endure harrowing blizzards in the Arctic. Meanwhile, the survivalist narrative of Lofthouse and Iris is contrasted by the voyage back to earth on the research station Aether, a scientist team who is making their way home from the Jupiter moon K-23, with no knowledge that earth has now experienced the apocalypse.
Film critics largely disliked The Midnight Sky, stating that it had high potential, but fell short of expectations. Some common criticisms were that the plot had uneven pacing, the tone felt empty, and many of the characters lacked depth. Matt Fowler, a writer for IGN, wrote, “Sadly, like the way most Netflix original movies tend to land, The Midnight Sky feels lacking, as if there are ingredients missing required to cook up a fully realized film.” He compared the film to similar science fiction movies including Children of Men and Fury Road, and argues that The Midnight Sky just failed to find its niche in the genre of “doomsday dystopia”. He writes, “The Midnight Sky...can't figure out which it wants to be and that results in an emotional but empty endeavor.” However, Fowler went on to write that Clooney and Springall had excellent acting, and the film’s aesthetics was one of its redeeming qualities. The scenery balanced between a stark, futuristic quality, and the imagination of life on another planet, with beautiful, otherworldly skies. The film hosts a cast of likable characters with who the audience can genuinely sympathize with.
The movie dances between what is real and Lofthouse’s imagination, and balances two plots, one of Lofthouse’s story of survival, and the other of Aether’s voyage. The characters are far from home, finding meaning on their own terms. Aether’s voyage tells the story of human advancement, while Lofthouse’s narrative is a rescue mission in the most desolate of times. New York Times writer Glenn Kenny, in his review “ ‘The Midnight Sky’ Review: It’s the End of the World, in the Arctic” writes, “As a cinematic storyteller...Clooney always hews to Alexander Pope’s popular adage, ‘the proper study of mankind is man’ In this study, humanity is the architect of its own destruction and agent of its own salvation.” The film is ambitious in that it takes on these fundamentally human questions.
My own criticism of the film lies not with its quality, but with its relevance. While it is unclear what instigates the radiation apocalypse in the film, a climate crisis is a much more pressing fear in the 21st century than nuclear winter. In addition, while space odyssey themed science fiction is iconic in popular culture, this too feels like a futuristic dream of a bygone era.