The Darkness of Netflix’s The Midnight Sky
Netflix’s The Midnight Sky presents itself as a spin on Interstellar’s premise of cosmic and environmental disasters grounded in family bonds, only with a returning space crew rather than a departing one. And while the film doesn’t skimp on disaster or on family, it ends up looking a lot more like The Day After Tomorrow in its final shape.
Where Interstellar focused on the story of one man’s journey and the perils along the way, The Midnight Sky hedges by trying to tell a mix of a diverse ensemble story while also following the hero’s personal quest.
And despite the compelling premise of the film, in trying to have things both ways, it ends up telling neither type of story very well.
A Sky Full of Stories
When it comes to narrative, The Midnight Sky shoots for the moon. From human tragedy to environmental disaster to relationship struggles to the dangers of space travel, there’s no shortage of plot going on. And it paces itself well so that we’re constantly engrossed in moments of tension or action. In fact, the film could probably have taken some cues from Netflix’s recently-cancelled space series Away and presented a rich miniseries experience with all the content it tries to shove into a single film. There are a few times when the film could slow down a bit to deepen our experience without feeling like everything comes to a full stop. And while the mystique of not fully explaining the events of the plot helps to keep The Midnight Sky from straying into Midi-Chlorian territory, its decisions about which details to share and which to leave out feels confusing at times.
Rather than tell the focused story of its protagonist, Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), The Midnight Sky tries to tell a different story along the way and clean everything up in the epilogue. And we end up taking such a prolonged break from Augustine’s story that the ultimate payoffs don’t feel like they matter as much in the larger tangle of the ending.
When the crew of the Æther end up dominating the screen, their characters aren’t developed much beyond a single defining characteristic for each crew member. Adewole (David Oyelowo) is responsible and devoted. Sully (Felicity Jones) is bold and determined. Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) is…a dad. We’re shown their solid chemistry as a team, but none of the challenges they overcame getting to this level of synergy. The result is that their decisions feel pretty empty in the end.
And that emptiness also undermines the film’s emotional payoffs.
A Dark Destination
The Midnight Sky seems to want an uplifting resolution in its final act. Despite the grim circumstances at its conclusion, we’ve given the swelling music and the montage that signal the kind of reconciliation we would expect. The paths all line up. The pieces fall into place. There’s a kind of optimistic stoicism. But then…it keeps going. And like 2017’s Life, where the final moment starkly alters the tone of the film, The Midnight Sky makes a bizarre decision with its final lines of dialogue that utterly deflates the moment.
That dialogue decision, combined with some previous acts of empty solidarity by the crew combine to form an ending that is flavorless and confusing. The film can’t seem to decide if it wants to be uplifting or solemn, and again decides to hedge by having it both ways. And again, this waffling means it fails to do justice to either option.
The Midnight Sky ends up being the kind of movie that suffers from comparisons within the genre. Given such strong films as Interstellar and The Martian, as well as solid series like Away and Lost in Space, The Midnight Sky really needed to bring something fresh to the table of near-future space exploration. Failing that, its best hope was to improve upon the execution of it predecessors. Unfortunately, the film winds up being a bland composite of various other stories that somehow manages to be interesting, shallow, hopeful, and dour.