“Please Don't Come Back from the Moon” was a typically complex composition Charles Mingus recorded during his notorious 1962 Town Hall Concert. It also basically sums up the message Dr. Augustine Lofthouse has for the crew of the Æther. Technically, they are returning from one of Jupiter’s moons, but the upshot is the same. A mysterious cataclysm has destroyed the Earth, so they are better off where they were. Getting that message out will take some doing in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, which screens for MoMA members as part of the current edition of Contenders, or the “Big Netflix Catch-Up,” as it could be called in January.
Nobody really describes what happened, but it was clearly bad. Lofthouse’s arctic research station is evacuating, but he decides to stay, because he has nobody to get back to. He once had someone, as we see in flashbacks, but he pushed her away with his single-minded dedication to his work. He never even bothered to meet the daughter his ex-lover raised on her own. However, he suddenly finds himself exercising his unused parental muscles, when he finds a mute little girl named Iris has been left behind. Perhaps that was a blessing for her, because the arctic region will be the last to be consumed by the Wrath of God, or whatever it is (seriously, why would scientists be interested in such details?).
Lofthouse quickly determines the only space exploration mission still operational is the Æther, which was scouting the moons of Jupiter for habitable environments. He hopes to warn it away from Earth, once it enters the range of communications, but he will need an antenna with more range.
In many ways, Midnight Sky is a decent example of the earnest, character-driven side of science fiction, but Clooney way over-cooks the emotional symbolism of his scenes portraying Lofthouse, the anti-social greybeard (literally). Iris’s function in the narrative is so blatantly manipulative, we are instantly suspicious of her secret. Not to be spoilery, but she is just so obvious.
Frankly, the film is much better when it focuses on the crew of the Æther. Of course, it makes no sense that Dr. “Sully” Sullivan would proceed with the mission while she was pregnant, but Clooney wanted his first casting choice, Felicity Jones, so he had pregnancy written into to the story. It doesn’t make real-world sense, but it heightens “Noah’s Ark” significance of the Æther crew.
As Sullivan and Commander Adewole, Jones and David Oyelowo have good Kirk-and-Spock or Picard-and-Riker rapport. Demian Bichir and Kyle Chandler also add tremendous human dimension to the crew as Sanchez, the temperamental engineering officer, and Mitchell, the family-oriented American astronaut.
Midnight Sky would have been a much stronger, more compelling viewing experience.
Still, it definitely presents an intriguing riff on the old lifeboat-movie motif. There are also a handful of absolutely stunning scenes of the cosmos and the Eden-like moon orbiting Jupiter. Midnight Sky was intended to be an IMAX film, but obviously that did not happen. (Perhaps his wife can file a complaint with Xi, through his loyal minions at the WHO.) At least there is half of a good movie in The Midnight Sky, which MoMA members can watch for free when it screens online for the 2020-2021 edition of Contenders, this Thursday through next Tuesday (1/7-1/12)—and Netflix subscribers can watch it whenever they like.