Everyone on earth is dead or soon will be. We don’t know exactly what happened – consequences of a nuclear disaster? – but whatever it was, it still spreads, still kills people, and doesn’t go away. Some survivors hide underground, but they can’t last long. There seem to be a few people above ground near the poles of the planet, but it is clear that whatever came for everyone else will come for them too. We are doomed – all of us, that is, apart from the five astronauts aboard Aether, a spaceship on its way back to Earth after exploring a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter.
So begins “The Midnight Sky,” George Clooney’s most recent appearance as a director and star – a worldwide Netflix hit and a telling artifact of our relationship to the idea of disaster. As the ether approaches Earth, astronauts face a choice. Those who board one of the ship’s landing craft, hoping to rush to the side of loved ones who are still alive, will return to Earth to die there. Those who stay in space stay for the rest of their lives.
In an emotional climatic scene, one crew member follows another to an equipment cabinet to confess his decision. But the two don’t discuss what’s happening on Earth, or why, or what it would mean to get stranded in space. Instead, they become philosophical about life. “I’ve been thinking,” says the crew member, and his eyes wet. “I’ve thought a lot about time and how it’s used and why. Why one person lives a lifetime and another only a few years. “
The vague disaster of “The Midnight Sky” initially feels like a nice change from the usual disaster movie formulas that put the apocalypse itself at the center: either we follow its slow, terrible progress through the first act or we see it scattered in threatening flashbacks . Nowadays, these mechanics can apparently be skipped. It’s all too easy to imagine how the end of the world could work. Every day news and government reports remind us that we are experiencing a planetary crisis, bringing new projections of worse pandemics, rolling climate shocks and mass migrations that are destroying our political systems. “The Midnight Sky” uses our terrible imagination to skip the catastrophe as a whole and directly reduce the pressure it exerts on individual characters.
But as the scene with the lockers makes clear, this film is more traditional than it seems. The story ultimately uses the same dramatic imagination as almost any other disaster film: the decimation of the earth becomes a backdrop that gives weight to the decisions of a few people that are intended to point to greater truths about humanity. Two workmates speculating about time and mortality sound like a Samuel Beckett play, but two space explorers talking about time and post-apocalypse mortality, plus some action scenes, sound like Netflix Gold. As you race past disaster, the equation doesn’t change so much as you lump it into a purer version of yourself – exposing its fundamental shortcomings in the process.
Most disaster films are not very interested in disasters in and of themselves. The disaster triggers the action and makes its solution meaningful, but when it comes to pondering where it’s coming from – why it’s unfolding one way and not the other – things tend to get blurry. We may see a montage of messages or a mug making an eerie spill somewhere in a lab. The catastrophe always seems to be due not to a specific cause, but to something nebulous and universal: “human nature”, hubris, evil business moguls. We get just enough explanation not to ask questions.
However, by opting for maximum disaster speed, The Midnight Sky makes it harder than usual to ignore these pesky questions. What human story underpinned the mysterious Big Bad Thing that killed everyone? What collective agreements, decisions, and failures underpinned the apocalypse and how did they dictate how it played out? I found myself in these underground shelters: who was in them? Who was excluded? Why exactly? There is a brief mention of a “colonial flight” that may or may not have launched that carried settlers into space. If so, who was on board and who watched it fly away?
Once upon a time, these details felt like little distracting things. But questions of this kind are among the most pressing questions facing humanity today. We don’t live by one big bad apocalyptic cause; We are staring at a whole planetary patchwork of bad things that threaten death and suffering on a large scale. It is possible that the idea of the discreet, one-off “apocalypse” will be withdrawn. There is a danger that we will fix our imaginations on a final pause that will never come, rather than the tangled moral drama of what has to happen now. How do we prepare as a species and a planet for the needs of the future? Will these preparations do more for some people than for others? What hope do we have of changing them for the better?
Starting from the fate of the earth, which has already been clarified, “The Midnight Sky” gives itself an overview of this line of investigation and an excuse to instead linger in the pathos of small moments of loss and acceptance. It reminded me disturbingly of characters like Elon Musk, who often seem more interested in triumphant dreams of life in space than in any effort to address the earthbound problems that would send us there in the first place. Colonizing space feels exciting: a new life under a new sky, free from the entanglements of the past. Dealing with Earth’s problems involves something we don’t consider romantic: considering other people’s basic needs on a global scale.
If our planetary crises were the same as conflicts negotiated between small groups of individuals, they would be much easier to resolve. But they are not. Could we start telling disaster stories that reflect this fact and deal with it? The most powerful recent example does not come from film but from literature: Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “The Ministry for the Future”, which – to name just an incomplete list – depicts scenes of climate disasters, government and financial bureaucracy, geoengineering- Experiments and streets shows protests, refugee camps and ecoterrorism. Each strand has meaning not only from the experiences of its characters, but also from the reader’s awareness of their deep connections.
Until we have more disaster stories like this, the genre will only ever function as a smudged, warped mirror for humanity. From the start, “The Midnight Sky” was imbued with a distinctly current fear of our missteps, but it refuses to face the dilemmas these missteps now force upon us, even as the need grows more urgent by the day.