Maybe I’m in a cranky mood, but I’m upset about the critical and popular response to this movie—both critics and audiences got this movie wrong. Even though it ranked just above Hillbilly Elegy and Mulan as the worst of the 41 Oscar-nominated films, it really is an excellent film. I recommend it to anyone who appreciates subtle and elegant filmmaking. I think this is one of the best movies of the year.
About one-third of the film takes place above the Arctic Circle and involves a scientist and mute child. Another third occurs in outer space and revolves around a small team of explorers. The remaining parts of the film are the scientist’s flashbacks to the start of his career. The flashbacks are critical to understanding the story, not just the character. These three separate stories all come together in the final moments of the film in a terrific conclusion that I wasn’t prepared for.
Oscar-winner George Clooney not only directs The Midnight Sky, he also portrays the main character, Augustine Lofthouse, an aging and ill scientist, in the year 2049. But he’s not the only thing “terminally ill.” As the movie opens, we learn that Earth itself has suffered something (it’s never fully explained) which is destroying the planet and all life on it. Lofthouse is working in an observatory above the Arctic Circle and we watch as everyone, except him, is leaving the remote outpost to return to family for the final days of life on Earth. Lofthouse stays because he doesn’t have any family to return to.
It turns out, though, that he isn’t alone: a mute little girl is apparently left behind and, although he radios for someone to return to pick her up, he ends up becoming responsible for Iris. He tries to relate to a young child in ways that he has never experienced before. Some of the best parts of the story are in his strange relationship with a child who (except for four significant words) never utters a sound over many days.
That story, by itself, is intriguing enough in its possibilities. But it turns out there is more going on. Lofthouse discovers that there is a forgotten space mission, with living humans on it, that is slowly making its way back to Earth, unaware of the disaster awaiting them. He decides that he must alert them so they can make plans to avoid landing on Earth. However, the communications equipment at his outpost is not adequate to reach the spaceship, so he and the mute child must travel through Arctic storms several days to reach a stronger antenna. This journey—some of it filmed in real Iceland blizzards—provides the setting for some very tense and hazardous moments. (This part of the film has been compared to The Revenant).
After the spaceship is identified, as Aether, the story transports us to the crew and their life on a years-long mission to travel to, explore, and document whether a specific moon of Jupiter, K23, could support human life, and then return to Earth. The crew consists of three men and two women, one of whom, Sully (Lily James), becomes pregnant.
The space scenes were filmed in a studio in England and relied on much of the technology that won the Oscar for the movie Gravity. Critics have noted, rightly, that this part of the film can tend to plod along with characters not fully developed. But the visual effects are stunning at times and one scene, in particular, where a crew member is in fatal distress, is simply brilliant.
Although some critics disagree with me, I think the ending made sense and I loved the way that all the pieces combined to give a final sense of hope to an otherwise dismal future. (4 Stars).
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