Pondering on ‘The Midnight Sky’ ☆☆☆☆

So much has been written about George Clooney’s beard in his new film, “The Midnight Sky,” you’d think it played a major role in the film. The beard is thick and grizzled and shaped with the expertise of a show poodle’s grooming, but the rest of Clooney’s coiffure has been shaped more like a careless hedge–for practicality rather than showboating charisma. Above the beard are Clooney’s eyes, set in what I assume are heightened puffy bags earned from restless days. “The Midnight Sky” is not about appearances, but about love and sacrifice in a time of terrifying life-threatening change.

An unnamed disaster has spread across the world. Only sheltering deep underground or catching the few seats that will take one above and beyond earth’s atmosphere can one grasp at an uncertain chance of survival. Three weeks after the event, Clooney’s character, Augustine Lofthouse, chooses to be left behind in an Arctic research facility. He is alone, not only figuratively, but emotionally. He has no family, no loved ones. He is terminally ill and needs daily treatment–blood transfusions (without which he won’t last a week) and takes white and blue capsules.

To pass the time, dressed in a dark grey T-shirt with an unbuttoned brown plaid shirt, Augustine plays chess by himself. A monitor shows a map of the world where red dots show every broadening territories and like raindrops falling into a still pond, their concentric circles begin to touch and overlap. Augustine understands science because science has been his sole companion through life.

This wasn’t always true. Once, three decades ago, he had a romance with a woman, Jean Sullivan, who pursued him. Eventually, she left him and he was too cautious, too socially inept to reach out to the thing that might have kept them connected. “You want to be an explorer, but now your own life is just slipping away.” Now, in flashbacks, he remembers. The young Augustine (portrayed by Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory Peck and his first wife, Greta Kukkonen) had brooding eyes under dark eyebrows and a bit more of a fashion sense, but he was silent when he should have explored the emotional space between him and others.

What brought the two together was a presentation: Augustine discovered a new moon off of Jupiter, that he believed could sustain human life. It wasn’t an exoplanet, but it appeared to be heated from inside out and could possibly support life. After decades of research, a NASA project on the space craft Æther has successfully landed and collected data. The crew is now on its way back. Augustine has attempted to contact all space missions, finding they have all been decommissioned except one: Æther. Æther and its crew fly back, unaware of the disastrous conditions on Earth, puzzled at losing contact as they draw closer.

THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)
Caoilinn Springall as Iris and George Clooney as Augustine. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020

On Earth, Augustine has found a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) hiding after all have left. She doesn’t speak, but he learns her name is Iris from her drawing. He slowly tries to draw her out while attempting to find some way to save her. When his temporary contact with Æther is cut off, he decides that he must travel out on the ice to another research station that has a stronger signal as the only means of saving both Æther and Iris.

Back on board, the five-person crew of Æther banter good-naturedly. One member, Sully (Felicity Jones) is expecting a baby with the Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) and the crew all have plenty of suggestions for names. Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) is the pilot and misses his family and kids. Maya Peters (Tiffany Boone) checks on the baby’s progress and shares a close bond with the older Sanchez (Demián Bichir).

The crew also wonders about the three-week control blockout. Nothing could last this long and disrupt both hemispheres of the Earth. Nothing except a disaster that they could not imagine and that now, Augustine works to warn them of while still hoping to save Iris.

Æther is the classical element that a in ancient and medieval science is what fills the region of the universe above the Earth. In Greek mythology, it is the essence of what the gods treated, like air for mere earthly mortals.

Inspired by the 2017 novel, “Good Morning, Midnight,” the film “The Midnight Sky” was altered to include the real pregnancy of Felicity Jones. In 2020, that’s a hopeful sign of grace in a production team in an industry that has recently been taken to task for sexism and sexual harassment. Sully’s pregnancy is echoed in the male crew members’ concerns for their families and tragedies of the past in Mark L. Smith’s script. There’s an emotional depth exposed that might not otherwise have been opened and Sully’s pregnancy adds meaning to the ending. Instead of a potential soap opera of claustrophobic romantic entanglements suggested but never to be followed up in the very stubbornly serious canceled Netflix space drama “Away,” “The Midnight Sky” gives us good-natured camaraderie and a reminder of emotional ties that tether even rocket scientists, engineers and astronauts to earthly concerns. 

There’s a meta-reference in “The Midnight Sky” to the 1959 Gregory Peck film, “On the Beach.” The film is based on a 1957 novel of the same name, but instead of an island of ice, the setting is Australia. “On the Beach” refers to both actual beaches as well as a naval term for “retired from service.” The novel also makes reference to the T.S. Elliot 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men” in the stanza that reads:  

In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Extracts of the T.S. Elliot poem were included on the first edition’s title page. The full poem is quoted below.

In “On the Beach,” Peck plays the commander of a US nuclear submarine now based in Australia. World War II has left the entire Northern Hemisphere polluted with nuclear fallout. Rather than assigning blame, the film suggests this nuclear catastrophe was the result of a mistake.  The Royal Australian Navy commands the US submarine to investigate Morse code signals being transmitted from a power station in San Diego. 

The crew members make choices on how they will die and where because ultimately the fallout will come to the Southern Hemisphere. 

“On the Beach” as “The Hollow Men” was a cry for humanity to step back from self-destruction. Likewise, “The Midnight Sky” reminds us of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve being banned from Eden and the potential disasters toward which we seem to be heading. We know more about nuclear fallout than the Nevil Shute did when he wrote “On the Beach,” but we’ve also damaged the ecosystem more in the decades since the Peck film came out. We are not yet able to project NASA projects that will allow us to live on Mars and we haven’t found another planet that might host human life without space suits. “The Midnight Sky,” might be our future if we do not work together globally and embrace science.

“The Midnight Sky” benefits greatly from Alexandre Desplat’s score. Despite the melancholy of his character, as director George Clooney balances the love and warmth on board the Æther with the cold desperation of Lofthouse’s last days. Be forewarned that death is portrayed in space and on the earth. This might not be a movie for young children. Still, as a production and a finished project, “The Midnight Sky” ends on a hopeful note for humanity. 

 

The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
            A penny for the Old Guy

I

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us-if at all-not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

II

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death’s dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

    Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer-

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom

III

    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.


    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

IV

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o’clock in the morning.


    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

[Full disclosure: My scientist husband has caused fires in the kitchen. A scientist having to deal with a fire in the kitchen seems normal to me.]

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