CALLERI: On this Earth, hope has to arrive from outer space

Kyle Chandler is aboard a spacecraft returning to mysterious events on Earth in “The Midnight Sky.”

When George Clooney and his production and acting team started working on their science-fiction movie “The Midnight Sky,” it’s doubtful anyone thought their film would be delivering a sense of the future of Earth. And by “future,” I’m referring to the “present” of 2020: the pandemic and the sense of isolation it has created.

It takes years to prepare major motion pictures. The actual shooting of “The Midnight Sky,” at Shepperton Studios in England, on the Canary Islands, and in Iceland, began Oct. 21, 2019 and was completed Feb. 7, 2020. Editing and other fine-tuning tasks took place throughout early- and mid-2020. Considering what was occurring in real time as they put their movie together, a feeling of deja vu by the cast and crew seems probable.

Clooney is the director and star of “The Midnight Sky,” which has a screenplay by Mark L. Smith and is based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton.

A theatrical release was planned, which would have been perfect for this beautiful-looking movie shot in digital 65mm by cinematographer Martin Ruhe. Even scenes you could call aggressive – a fierce snowstorm, asteroids raining down in outer space – have a solid allure to them. With most movie theaters closed, Netflix is your option for watching the film.

“The Midnight Sky” is one of the most serious and somber movies I’ve seen. It’s about surviving a catastrophe. It’s also about loneliness and the possibility of delusional thinking caused by that loneliness.

In 2049, an unexplained dramatic event has happened on Earth. The vastness of the planet is theoretically shrinking. Most of the population has been killed. There’s no escape because whatever is happening is expanding its doom across landmasses and oceans to the North and South poles. Scientists, who have been working in the icy Arctic, board aircraft to take them – where? It seems they want an emotional bonding farewell with family or friends at home, but you may want to ask: why?

In the icy far north, habitation scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney; and isn’t that a great name for a character) decides to await his demise, but with a little bit of hope for humankind. His specialty is seeking out and studying planets and moons on which humans might live. He electronically guides astronauts on these adventures. A heavily bearded Clooney is pitch-perfect as the man the audience must relate to because he will be their experienced guide on the journey they are watching.

Choosing to stay at his Arctic base, a heroic Augustine – exhausted and weakened by terminal cancer for which he gives himself blood transfusions – attempts to contact the crew of a spacecraft that has been on an important mission examining the potential for living on one of these distant moons, K-23 to be precise, to learn if it can support life.

Their exploration is completed, and the astronauts are returning home. Augustine must warn them that Earth is in the throes of a disaster. He wants to tell the crew to reverse course, to return to K-23 and rebuild humanity. In essence, he wants to advise them to go back to the future.

The problem is that his radio technology is faltering. The solution is to trek many miles away to a second, extremely remote transmission facility, which has stronger communications equipment.

Before this earthbound journey can happen, a child appears in Augustine’s area of operation. She didn’t leave with the others. Was she deliberately abandoned? Did her guardians think she was lost? Another complication arises; we learn she is mute. We will soon discover that her name is Iris. She’s played affectingly by Caoilinn Springall.

Augustine and Iris will battle against time and the brutal elements in his effort to alert the astronauts.

The dramatic film may be slow to pick up speed, but once we’re on the spacecraft, events start to unfold more dynamically. The astronauts’ communications officer Sully (Felicity Jones) is pregnant. The child’s father is the Mission Commander, Adewole (David Oyelowo). The capable crew includes Mitchell (wonderfully played by Buffalo-born Kyle Chandler), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demian Bechir).

Each of these characters has a deliberate focus – director Clooney understands screen acting, which may seem like a obvious statement, but this is important in terms of what’s going to occur. He also appreciates understatement. “The Midnight Sky” is the rare motion picture that demands listening to every carefully written and spoken conversation and to paying close attention to the space action so that the jolts genuinely rock your sensibilities. One jolt is particularly raw.

What proceeds is yours to discover. Be your own astronaut in the room in which you watch movies. Create a quiet space. Lower the lights. Imagine that you are facing an utterly unknown isolation, which shouldn’t take too much effort. The unknown is always frightening. It’s frightening in the film. Madness is always lurking somewhere. Alexandre Desplat’s musical score delivers proper tonal cues.

There’s a Biblical feel to this superbly acted and visually arresting motion picture. There’s also a powerful sadness. The character of Augustine is enveloped in a fatalism rarely documented in movies, especially American studio films.

Things may seem bleak, but if we know and understand one thing about humans who are intelligent, there’s always hope. Is hope present here? The ending is controversial. I think it’s perfect. Watch “The Midnight Sky.”

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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