New Clooney Film ‘The Midnight Sky’ Is a Meditative Sci-Fi Fable About the Search for Home
George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky is a meditative, speculative sci-fi film set in the not-too-distant world of 2049 after the natural destruction of the Earth from climate change. It isn’t a non-stop action spectacle, though it has its moments, but if you’re looking for the thrill-a-minute of the Star Wars franchise or even the sustained tension of the Clooney-starring Gravity, you’re in the wrong galaxy.
On the home planet, earthlings — those who have survived — have clustered towards the poles in an exodus to transport to more habitable planets. Augustine (Clooney), a scientist riddled with cancer (he administers his own medical treatments in the lonely evenings), stays behind at a government base in an attempt to warn the occupants of the Æther, returning to Earth after discovering a sustainable moon of Jupiter, to abandon the mission and turn back. Augustine, believing he’s isolated in the Arctic way station, discovers that a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has been abandoned, but he knows little else about her. She’s uncommunicative, though not exactly mute. The grizzled scientist and his left-behind charge learn to correspond through drawings.
The isolationism and the need for basic contact was a strong pull for Clooney that became more pointed during post-production of the film.
“I always thought it was a film, when we started, about what we were capable of doing to one another,” he has said of The Midnight Sky. “I was in post-production and started to realize that, no, what the film is and what the story is, is our desperate need to be home or to be with the people we love and to be in contact with them. And sometimes we forget that, and all of a sudden, you take it away so you can’t be in touch.”
The Midnight Sky is as basic as that: a sci-fi fable about the search for home. (Like Contact and Interstellar before it, it’s a space drama about the immutable pull of family.) This is nowhere more evident than in the scenes between Clooney and the remarkably poised young Springall (her blue-eyed stare is a wondrous and calming tonic), and in the fortuitous circumstance of the actress Felicity Jones’ real-life pregnancy, who portrays the co-captain of the Æther, Sully. At first, the director and his producer Grant Heslov thought they would CGI her baby bump in post-production until they embraced the obvious.
“They came to my trailer and said it would work so much better if my character was actually pregnant,” Jones has said. “We made minor changes and carried on in that course. It made absolute sense for the story.”
Jones is the still presence on a ship filled with characters (in the movies, all space missions have their version of the ’40s bomber crew) played with brio and great humor by Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, David Oyelowo and Demian Bichir. Yet her pregnancy, and her burgeoning maternal instincts, lends depth and resonance to the film. Can they survive and, by extension, can the species continue, learning from past mistakes in order to make their future home(s) a more sustainable environment?
For a celebrity with known political associations, The Midnight Sky could be seen, reductively, as a liberal wet dream, and there’s no denying that it is. Yet Clooney doesn’t push his agenda; he lets the circumstances (and the real end product of doing nothing about climate change) speak for themselves. It’s a quiet drama about unimaginable consequences that plays out before us, and it has an emotional pull rare in most sci-fi movies. If the by-product of the film is a higher awareness of the fragility of our eco-system, and any political activism that might occur as a result of it, then, for Clooney — as well as for humanity — it’s mission accomplished.