Length: 122 minutes
The end of the world has been a preoccupation of cinema since, well, movies first began. Still, the manner in which we collectively cark it seems to come and go in cycles.
In the 1950s, the end of the world usually came as a result of antisocial aliens or gigantic, mutated insects.
In the 1980s, armageddon tended to arrive in a mushroom cloud of atom-splitting fury. In the 2000s, we all got a little bit obsessed with zombies - fast-moving and slow - and envisaged our end at the pointy teeth of a dark reflection of ourselves.
Lately, the end of the world has quite often come as a result of climate catastrophe, or some other disaster caused by humanity, as films tend to reflect the anxieties of their era.
That’s the case with The Midnight Sky, the new film from director/star George Clooney, which is an at times glum, but thoughtful, take on humanity’s final act.
Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) is a vaguely misanthropic scientist who, when we first meet him, has volunteered to stay above ground when most of humanity is fleeing to underground bunkers.
See, a cataclysmic “event” has taken place - some kind of extinction-level shenanigan that is never addressed with much specificity - and it won’t be long until the entire surface of the earth becomes fatally radioactive.
Why is Augustine staying? Because he’s already terminally ill, and he wants to spend his last days trying to communicate with the crew of space shuttle Æther, who are returning from a mission to Jupiter, where they have discovered habitable moon K-12 and have no idea their home planet is completely cactus.
What we end up with is essentially two storylines.
In one, we have Augustine trying desperately to reach Æther, which is complicated when he finds a young mute child, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), somehow left behind at the Arctic base.
In the other, we have the crew of Æther, dealing with the fact they have lost contact with Earth and trying to figure out what’s happening as their journey becomes more deadly than anticipated.
How these stories intersect, how they juxtapose, is the core of the film and for the most part it’s effective. The Æther story is particularly compelling, with unexpectedly pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), sketching out an intriguing arc that has moments of pathos and genuine sweaty-palmed tension. One ill-fated spacewalk in particular recalls the more pulse pounding moments of 2013’s Gravity, with action and suspense delivered very effectively.
That’s not to say Clooney’s story is a dud. In fact, once he makes the decision to reach a different base, and has to take the long way across the deadly ice, you’ll probably spend a good portion of your viewing time on the edge of your seat.
Clooney offers a subdued but effective performance, sporting a ‘daddy af’ bearded mug and delivering much of his early dialogue in a mutter. Felicity Jones is also extremely appealing, offering a much more optimistic turn, which makes sense considering her circumstances. Although, she also manages to convey the sheer existential dread of the Æther’s situation when required.
Clooney’s direction is assured, although never spectacular, which is a description that could easily also be applied to the screenplay by Mark L. Smith. The Midnight Sky is a consistently engaging yarn, and one that has plenty to recommend, but when all’s said and done it doesn’t leave you with much to ponder.
Often solemn, glum, tense and exciting, The Midnight Sky threatens to be great at times, but never quite arrives there. Still, it’s a solid film for fans of ponderous sci-fi or dystopian stories and could be an easy antidote to the tsunami of twee Christmas movies.
Actually, now that we give it some thought, this is actually a story about a bearded bloke who sets off from the North Pole to deliver some presents to good boys and girls! Admittedly, the presents in question are news of a “slim chance of humanity’s survival” but still, Happy Deathmas, everyone!
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