The Midnight Sky

Stowaway

04/05/21

Netflix

There’s a familiar shaggy dog story which concerns four passengers on a stricken airplane, who discover that they have only been issued with three parachutes and must therefore decide which of them is going to have to make do without one. Will a passenger do the decent thing and volunteer? Or will they simply opt to push one of the others out of the door? I wonder if writer/director Joe Penna took his inspiration from that same tale? At any rate, what we have here is a futuristic version of the same conundrum. In space.

Three astronauts embark on what will be a two year mission to Mars. They comprise Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, for once given free rein to employ her native accent), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and wide-eyed medical researcher, Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick). The actual details of their mission are somewhat nebulous, but that’s not the main concern of this story, which is far more interested in moral dilemmas.

The plot kicks in when the three crew members discover an injured man lying inside one of the er… hatches. He is engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) who – in equally nebulous circumstances – has ended up wounded and unconscious onboard. He is quickly patched up by Zoe and, despite being somewhat bewildered to discover he’s not going home for two years, seems a nice enough fellow, determined to fit in with three strangers. But his presence on the spaceship has caused complications, not least of which is the fact that his prone body has somehow damaged a vital bit of equipment and… there will now only be enough oxygen to allow three people to reach Mars safely.

In short, one of them needs to die, fairly promptly. Unless of course, they can come up with a better er… parachute.

Stowaway is an unashamedly low budget affair and, while it manages to make the interior of the ship thoroughly believable, whenever the characters are required to step outside of it, the result looks like a less convincing version of Gravity. This is particularly evident in an extended sequence where David and Zoe undertake a perilous space walk along a constantly rotating structure in order to reach some oxygen tanks. While it manages to exert a degree of genuine suspense in the telling, this idea has been done before and, it must be said, more convincingly than here, most recently in George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky.

It’s nicely acted by Kendrick and Anderson, who make an appealing double act. Dae Kim and Collette have rather less to do and are mostly required to sit around looking glum. Understandable, under the circumstances.

More importantly, perhaps, that central moral dilemma is never satisfyingly explored and the story’s resolution does feel like a bit of a cop out. Still, this isn’t a total dud. It keeps me reasonably entertained throughout and it’s perhaps only afterwards that I start to seriously question some aspects of the plot. I can only say that Hyperion – the company that organised this mission to Mars – needs to take another look at its safety procedures.

And they should definitely start by providing more parachutes.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Midnight Sky

26/12/20

Netflix

What a strange, mournful film The Midnight Sky is! It’s hardly the feel-good picture to end 2020 on a note of hope and yet, for all that, George Clooney’s futuristic saga exerts a slow-burning grip, as it gradually unfolds a story that takes place in two major locations, millions of miles apart.

It’s the year 2045 and the Earth is comprehensively doomed. There’s been some kind of global catastrophe – the intimation is there’s been a sudden rise in radiation levels – which means that the planet’s inhabitants are counting down their final days. Scientists based in a research station in the Arctic circle, one of the last places to be affected, are making a last desperate bid to escape, but Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) figures there’s no point in going with them. He has a serious illness and has to depend on nightly dialysis in order to eke out his final days – see, I told you it was gloomy!

Lofthouse decides to spend what time he has trying to contact the space craft AEther, which is returning from a mission to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, where they’ve been investigating its potential as an alternative place to live. Lofthouse feels particularly bad about the crew’s situation, since he’s the man who discovered K-23 and is indirectly responsible for sending them out there in the first place. But they are still out of range of his communication signals and he’s rapidly slipping away.

Then Lofthouse discovers that he’s not alone. A little girl is hiding out on the base. Iris (an adorable debut by Caolinn Springall) doesn’t seem to have the power of speech, but she gives Lofthouse another reason to stay alive as long as he can.

Meanwhile, on the AEther, Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), are heading home through a previously uncharted section of space, an area where sudden meteor storms are a regular occurrence. And of course, there’s the added irony of the situation. They and the other members of their crew have no idea that they are all returning to a dying planet…

If my synopsis makes this feel like a somewhat disparate story, let me assure you that the cuts back and forth are nicely judged and expertly handled – Clooney directed this and he’s done so with considerable skill. A series of short sequences featuring Ethan Peck as a younger Lofthouse seem at first to add very little to the story, but they do make perfect sense when we get to its poignant conclusion. Before that, there’s plenty to keep me on the edge of my seat – on earth, there’s a heart-stopping encounter with melting ice and, in the midst of a blizzard, an attack by wolves. Up in the eye-popping splendour of the solar system we witness the most terrifying cinematic space walk since Gravity. And then, in the film’s final stretch, there’s a last act reveal that I really don’t see coming and which has me reaching for a hanky.

The Midnight Sky won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ve already seen some dark mutterings about it on social media, complaints that it isn’t the straightforward action/adventure that people were expecting. Well, fair enough, it certainly isn’t that but, to my mind, it’s much more. It’s a dire warning about what humankind is doing to the world it currently inhabits, a plea for us to start investigating alternative worlds. It’s also a meditation on our inbuilt compulsion to survive at all odds.

And, miserable creature that I am, I find it genuinely uplifting.

4 stars

Philip Caveney