It’s the year 2049. Some type of catastrophic nuclear event has just occurred and people are fleeing in helicopters to out run the clouds of radioactive fallout spreading across Earth. Dozens of manned space missions have been launched to scour the solar system for a new home for humanity. Almost all of those missions have failed.
The lone surviving spaceship is The Aether. It’s returning to Earth to report that one of Jupiter’s moons, K-23, may be a safe new home for humankind. However, The Aether is returning to a home they won’t recognize. Earth is contaminated and uninhabitable, and The Aether must be warned that there won’t be a storybook Welcome Home awaiting them.
Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) is terminally ill. He requires daily medication and dialysis to stay alive. Augustine volunteers to stay behind and man an Arctic communications facility to try and warn The Aether to abandon its approach to Earth. His life expectancy is short, so he’s the obvious choice for a near-certain suicide mission.
As Augustine waits for The Aether to come into radio range, he discovers he’s not alone in the Arctic station. A young girl named Iris hid in the facility during the evacuation, leaving Augustine as her caretaker until he can figure out a plan for her rescue.
This is the premise of The Midnight Sky, a new science fiction thriller that hits Netflix this week. The film splits its time between the inhabitants of The Aether (played by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler and others) and the trials and tribulations of Augustine and Iris as they escape clouds of radiation while broadcasting distress signals to the incoming spaceship.
Some sci-fi fans prefer the universe building and the creation of a unique mythology above all other aspects of story-telling. I find this type of science fiction more suited to a television series than a film. From Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica to The Mandalorian and The Expanse, large-scale science fiction thrives when it’s painted on a vast canvas. It’s very difficult to compress such epic story-telling into a two-hour movie, though classics like Blade Runner and Star Wars: A New Hope are proof that it can be done.
Other fans, including myself, prefer science fiction that taps into the humanity of its characters. The surroundings (spaceships, other planets, etc.) may be different, but the most important element is that we see ourselves in the people struggling to cope in these unfamiliar environments. The Midnight Sky definitely falls in this character-driven category. The relationships take center stage, and that’s fine with me.
George Clooney The Director has taken a lot of hits from critics and fans over the years. His second film behind the camera was Good Night, and Good Luck, a black and white ode to the days of radio journalism and the likes of Edward R. Murrow. It received six Oscar nominations, and Clooney seemed on the verge of entering Clint Eastwood territory, a respected actor who becomes an even more respected filmmaker.
Then came a string of mediocre films over the next ten years: Leatherheads, The Ides of March, The Monuments Men and the dreadful Suburbicon. Clooney’s streak of mediocrity has some critics waiting for The Midnight Sky with knives sharpened. Is it a science fiction masterpiece? Nope. But not every film can be the next Alien or The Matrix.
The Midnight Sky is a solid genre film that kept me engaged. The final fifteen minutes will make you decide if you love, like or hate the film. For me, the rather lackluster destination did not ruin the journey, and I fall solidly in the camp that “likes” the film. Not every new science fiction or horror film has to redefine the entire genre, which is good because very few films can pull that off. The Midnight Sky will satisfy many science fiction fans until something better comes along.
The Midnight Sky hits Netflix on December 23rd.