Netflix’s “The Midnight Sky” barely qualifies as a science fiction film, but director-star George Clooney‘s efforts to build a story about connection and regret overcomes the movie’s shortcomings. If you’re expecting an exciting thriller similar to Gravity or the Netflix series Away, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a near-future narrative with a certain intimacy, Clooney’s film might fit the bill.
Clooney plays dying scientist Augustine Lofthouse, who has discovered a fifth large moon orbiting Jupiter, labeled K-23. In 2049, a manned spacecraft named Aether has traveled to K-23 and learned that it is habitable and might provide a second home for humans. In the midst of the craft’s return trip, an unexplained, but devastating cataclysm befalls Earth, leaving Lofthouse alone in an Arctic science station. He finds a young girl named Iris hiding on the station, but he fails to find her parents. He also decides to warn the incoming Aether to stay away and return to K-23 where the crew might survive. Together, the old man and the girl travel to another station with a stronger radio that could reach Aether.
As a science fiction film, The Midnight Sky comes up short. I prefer sci-fi stories with a main premise based on real science. But the “discovery” of a fifth Jovian moon with the same scale as the Gallilean moons (Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, and Io) is simply too far-fetched. The potential for a global, life-destroying catastrophe is certainly plausible (Hello, extinct dinosaurs), but the film missed an opportunity to make a sub-point about protecting the planet against climate change or even a rogue meteor strike. The vague reference to an “accident” and a resulting radioactive disaster isn’t enough. On the plus side, I loved the design and environment of Aether, whose organic curves contrast nicely with the random, engineered angles of real spacecraft, such as the International Space Station.
But this film does something that most sci-fi movies rarely achieve: an exploration of the emotional worlds of scientists. Though the character of Lofthouse approaches the cliché of the intellectual introvert with few social skills, Clooney does a good job of showing Lofthouse’s desire for connection to a pregnant member of the Aether crew, named “Sully,” and his sorrow at missing the chance to get to know her more at an earlier encounter. Gradually, we learn the true identity of Iris, and the revelation has a tinge of Rod Serling to it. If you’re patient during this slow-paced story, it’s worth the wait.
What’s your favorite sci-fi movie of 2020?