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Film Essay (and Dear Dad Letter): George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” on Netflix

Hey dad, so here it is:

The Midnight Sky, despite its setting, should never be mistaken for a science fiction story- any more than Shakespeare set in space should be called science fiction. The Midnight Sky is a ghost story, as much so as The Sixth Sense, A Christmas Carol or Interstellar, which also pissed off some sci-fi critics.

The Midnight Sky’s George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall

Like Insterstellar, George Clooney’s new Netflix thing explores the subjects of isolation, memory, lost love, world destruction, time-travel, “spooky action at a distance” and other supranormal phenomenon. It’s just messy.

Yes, dad, of course you are correct about how this film botches some important details regarding the physics of space, the design of machines needed to travel it, plus the specificity of language that should be used to talk about it. When you and I chatted by phone on Christmas day, I was merely sharing some brief, mindless enjoyment about this new George Clooney/Netflix film that I’d watched the night before. It was new, and it was on. I have time on my hands right now, dad. I’m unemployed, lost. Life is messy. I watch movies. I wander around my house reflecting on the detritus of my life. It was small talk, dad. Yes, of course, this film got so many of the space things wrong. Don’t they all?

Considering how much messy things and loose ends upset the uber-responsible astrophysicist Augustine (played by Clooney), a daughter could be tempted to draw some neat parallels with her own father. Throughout his entire life, he’s focused on his important work at the expense of human relationships. In one flashback, Augustine as a young scientist (portrayed with high seriousness by the gorgeous Ethan Peck), is let off the hook when his girlfriend confronts him with the news that she isn’t actually pregnant. He’s not trapped. The blocking in this scene is just heartbreaking. His back is to her the entire time. He never once looks away from his computer. Of course, she leaves him. There can be no relationship there.

In other scenes we flash forward to the present again where Augustine as a terminally ill, older man, watches everyone else evacuating the dying Earth, only to then discover the young, orphaned Iris- a stowaway. As he determinedly tries to contact any/all active space missions, his goal is more responsibly urgent than ever. He needs to find her parents so they can come back to retrieve her. He also must warn anyone who’s still out there somewhere that they must not try to return to a destroyed, radioactive Earth. The responsible thing to do.

The Midnight Sky’s George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall

You emailed me your thoughts, dad, after you’d also watched this film, and I was surprised to see it was so late at night.

Way past your usual bedtime, with or without wine. You declared, “its plot line was pretty clearly cribbed from Nevil Shute’s On The Beach”. I wonder if all archetypal stories, as retold and reshaped through the millenia, fall subject to your view that they are stolen if they’re not completely original. You urged me, “If you have not already read that, you should. Last thing he wrote, I think”. And I will, dad. I adore Shute’s word smithing and have enjoyed his books many times as a reader. Thank you so very much for the suggestion. I look forward to reading the last thing anyone ever writes.

So if I may continue… Initially, the plot’s injection of the young, mute Iris posits her as an inverse or ironic superego for Augustine because she is just so little, so mute, and so wholly dependent on him. It seemed a story choice basically to fuck with Augustine’s perfect, orderly, solitary world. In literary and psychological texts, the superego gets defined as a critical, condemning (or at least mature and parent-like) voice within a person’s own mind or psyche and has often been described as the “inner critic” or the voice of the critical father within a person’s own mindscape.

You paid for my college, dad. I paid attention to a few topics, at least to this one. The inner critic warns an individual that he/she must do the correct thing- the proper thing- the adult thing; Some thing or choice that will require restraint and sacrifice. Augustine’s got this in spades. With Iris in tow, he must heed his own conscience more than ever.

The Midnight Sky’s Caoilinn Springall

Today while browsing for more articles on this subject, I found legal mediation coach Elizabeth Bader, who writes often about these ideas. One of her articles captures the film’s biggest theme. Uncannily, it seemed she might have just watched this The Midnight Sky as well. She argues,

“In order to move to a place of compassion we each must dissolve the internal psychological structure known as the inner critic or superego”.

She is writing here about the practice of legal mediation to help people resolve their disputes (plus to keep them from clogging the court system)- – but, her goal is actually bigger. She seeks to address spiritual problems. Which I know you may be wary of as a scientist, dad. Yet, as she insists, this dissolving has to precede any conflict resolution. Even for loner scientists like Augustine. One can almost hear the jury in his head as it all plays out on Clooney’s face.

In almost an M. Night Shyamalan reversal, how touching it is then, when The Midnight Sky reveals we’ve been led on, just as Augustine has.

We learn late in the story that Iris has appeared as a ‘phantom’ to him all along. She was never really ‘real’ in his world, yet she does exist in the dangerous present as a very alive, very pregnant and very grownup comms officer named Sully of the Aether, a ship now dangerously off course and traversing dangerous space, trying to return to Earth from Jupiter’s newly explored, habitable moon.

The Aether has been out of contact with Earth for weeks since undefined radioactive incidents have destroyed everything on our planet (sans Augustine in his northern arctic holdout). As the Aether’s comms officer, Sully’s commission means she must establish contact with Earth and she is more relieved than anyone to finally hear a voice in the wilderness. And it’s Augustine’s responsible, parental voice at that. He insists the Aether must turn back.

Even more incredibly, Sully is actually the daughter of Augustine’s former love (whom he abandoned all those years ago). Sully’s mother told her all about him, gifting her with a moon rock that had once been his. As she tells Augustine this on their final, very touching and very long-distance call, Sully thanks Augustine for inspiring her entire career. She, too, is someone who has dedicated her life to finding new, habitable worlds. I was nearly in tears at this point. If you were similarly moved by any moment in the film, dad, I suspect you’ll never tell anyone. Not even mom.

The Midnight Sky’s Felicity Jones

If by now you detect neurotic daddy issues in me, dad, you would not be wrong. This film was surely made to entrap me. The majority of The Midnight Sky’s film stills on imdb.com are those pairing Clooney with young actress Caoilinn Springall (who plays Iris). These images of them together encapsulate something I read long ago about children and parents- something to the effect that children don’t so much need structured things to do with their fathers as much as they just need to be with them. My memory flashed back to instances of hanging out with you, helping you with projects. I learned to shoulder the bulk of your criticism because it meant we’d be together. I also learned to be messy, to act out, and to misbehave, because we’d then get to spend even more time together.

The Midnight Sky stops just short of spelling out for us that the adult Sully (played by Felicity Jones) is in fact Augustine’s real daughter, nicknamed Iris. As a youth who abjured relationships, parenthood and instead prioritized the ‘important work’ of seeking out other life-sustaining worlds, Augustine at the end of his own life’s arc is a man clearly haunted by his choices, in need of some type of supranormal intervention.

In defense of the The Midnight Sky as a ghost story, if the film’s totally improbable series of coincidences and connections doesn’t represent what Einstein condemned as “spooky action at a distance,” well then I’ll eat my hat.

Many good ghost stories make use of these tropes- because they work. Things about them resonate in the human psyche. I’m not sure where you stand now exactly in the flood of new research into quantum entanglement, dad, but the situation is heating up all over the world. And I know that you know it is, because whenever I visit, I see all the books you’ve been reading. It’s not lost on me that the particles themselves are not transported, but instead “what gets transferred from one place to the other is the information inherent to an indeterminate quantum state”. It’s just spooky. It doesn’t make sense that this could happen.

Hard science journals and their writers are using too many metaphors that are probably too anthropomorphized for your liking. Maybe they should just stop it. Stop it right now. Just a few minutes ago as I played internet roulette again with some search terms on the general subject, I see that Jesse Emspak ‘s 2016 article in space.com is titled “Quantum Entanglement: Love on a Subatomic Scale” and its opening line fecklessly says, “ When talking about love and romance, people often bring up unseen and mystical connections. Such connections exist in the subatomic world as well, thanks to a bizarre and counterintuitive phenomenon called quantum entanglement”.

If these metaphors are stupidly facile, or worse- just plain wrong, who will put an end to them in the scientific literature? Who will take on that responsibility? Yes of course the science of quantum mechanics gets hijacked all the time by new-age ignoramuses. Of course I see this. I’m equally as guilty. You read all the physics books you can get your hands on and after all these years you still correct or debunk many old chestnuts that cross your path. Recently, you described to me how in one of your most recent articles, you thrashed some aviation “writer” who was still somehow insisting that Bernoulli’s theorem adequately explains lift and why machines can fly. Yet I suspect neither you nor he used any language of ‘love’ in your exchanges. Maybe it’s just inevitable that writing about quantum mechanics has to include these bad, or too human, analogies. Can’t something be done about this? Let’s keep love out of all important writing, shall we?

In isolation. The Midnight Sky’s George Clooney.

Ultimately, Augustine must make a perilous journey. He must go further north to yet another arctic base that has a bigger radio transmitter if he is to continue advising Sully on the Aether. Narrowly surviving a horrific accident while trying to save himself, little Iris, plus his portable blood transfusion machine, he must abandon it to a watery abyss. A sacrifice on a journey to redemption. In the film’s early scenes where he acerbically declines to join Earth’s other evacuees, his nihilistic, curmudgeonly responses mask a sort of martyrdom. He’s doing the right thing. After all, what other choice would be the correct choice for a terminally ill, older man when the Earth has gone to shit?

I’m reminded of those elementary school problems posed to us long ago- the ones that go, “given all the ages, sexes, health statuses and occupations of this group of people- who should be allowed on the lifeboat’s limited seats?” Clearly, these hypothetical problems can screw with a child all her life. Augustine has made the ‘correct’, adult choices his whole damn life, self-selecting not to evacuate with everyone else. It’s hard to imagine this character even enjoying his childhood. Augustine’s many responsible choices and sacrifices nest together like matryoshka dolls.

An older actor now, the wear and tear of life are carved into the lines of Clooney’s face. Even the stern, beautiful, but largely emotionless performances of Ethan Peck as the younger, always-driven Augustine drives home this toll of seriousness over a person’s lifetime. I found myself wondering if Clooney’s voice was partially dubbed over Peck’s, so that they’d even ‘sound’ alike. (more of my musing about this idea of the adult, mature ‘voice’ here). And lo- as I searched, a Hollywood Reporter article confirmed this was indeed true.

The Midnight Sky’s George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall

Mute, and wholly dependent on Augustine for survival, the young, innocent Iris is the balm to superego, yet also its constant prompt. It is she who helps Augustine soften his inner critic. A child, she holds no authority whatsoever. She giggles briefly during a game she initiates, as they flick green peas at each other over a meal, but she never speaks. She never condemns him. She never scolds him. She never criticizes.

Even her id is sweet and playful (compared at least to how many parents describe their male children). As she brushes her fingertips across delicate machinery and expensive computer screens, Augustine asks aloud why she must touch everything. He points out a room across the hall from his, that she must sleep in. She quickly creeps back into his room instead, dragging her sleeping bag, parking herself to snooze by his door. Her disguise is adorable- she is a cherub, an innocent baby with her open expression and her wide, kittenish eyes. She must be protected. She is a ghost of grace and mercy embodying forgiveness for a man who’s work is never done even after working tirelessly for years for ‘the common good’.

As I write these words on the cusp of 2021, Donald Trump has recently pardoned so many of his criminal allies, provoking wide outrage. Words including ‘craven’ and ‘corrupt’ dominate current articles condemning his actions. As I write this, I wonder about what forgiveness means in its many forms, and I read that traditionally, pardons are referred by the justice department (not lobbied for personally), and they are reserved for cases where it’s argued that mercy and grace are needed to mend torn social fabric. Whether or not Trump self-pardons before leaving office, and what results from it, will be for the political writers to chew on.

My focus is instead is intractably pulled to the immediate, inherent dynamics in family relationships- and the topics of connection, redemption and forgiveness. I’m reading other writers now commending the diversity of this film’s cast, and they are not wrong. In the many scenes of the Aether’s diverse crew played by Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir and Tiffany Boone, these characters enjoy holographic recordings in which they can ‘interact’ with long-absent family members. These scenes underscore that relationships and being together are the norm for humanity. One could argue that the isolated Augustine needed the ghost of a daughter to reach out to him across space.

Whenever we chat, dad, you definitely seem more at peace than you ever were during your working days. You’re still the supreme critic of what bad scientists, politicians, institutions and films are getting wrong, however, it’s obvious you’ve relaxed some about your own life’s treadmill. I love you, dad, and hope you too are able to let your conscience rest. I hope you can reflect on all the ‘right things’ you’ve done over your long career for your jobs, our family, our country, our world.

This is your own daughter (who like Sully, is physically many miles away from you, yet still entangled) acknowledging, like Sully does, your influence over my entire life, inspiring me also to do the big, challenging, responsible things. I also just want to be close to you. This essay is just me transmitting information inherent to an indeterminate quantum state. Hear me and know I love you. My life and thoughts are actually much messier now that Covid has ruined my industry and career of 30 years. Time feels relative. The Earth feels radioactive now. And I feel like the Aether, rudderless and lost in space, yet I’m encouraged by this film to just spend time with you and hear your voice, whenever we can.

Until and beyond then, all my love.

J

The Midnight Sky’s George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall

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