It goes without saying that this article contains spoilers for The Midnight Sky.
The problem with George Clooney growing a Father Christmas beard is that it’s hard to take your eyes off it, which means you might not give The Midnight Sky’s story the attention it deserves. We’re talking about a mightily impressive feat of facial hair here, rendered even more dramatic by the frost that clings to every strand. Stare too long, and the actual plot of the film will easily get buried in the tundra.
That, we assume, is why you’re here. The credits are rolling and you’re very confused. What happened? Where did the beard go? Can I grow a beard like that? Probably not! But we can help you with the rest. In a recent roundtable, Esquire asked the cast of The Midnight Sky to give us an insight into the closing moments of Clooney’s Netflix space epic, and the thinking behind the story.
First thing’s first: the journey. Following a mysterious catastrophic event that wipes out much of the human population, scientist Augustine (George Clooney, who also directed the film) decides to remain on his Arctic outpost while other survivors flee to space. He’s determined to single-handedly get in touch with a spaceship crew that’s on its way home from a newly discovered planet, unaware of what’s happened back on Earth. Little does he know that he’s not alone. A young mute girl, named Iris, has been left behind too.
The actual reason behind Earth's dystopian demise was kept intentionally vague. It is a all-purpose stand-in for climate change, for a global pandemic (the film was shot before Covid-19 reached such status), for any of the existentially threats currently facing mankind. “I constantly think about how much our planet would change anyway, just the same way it has changed over the last millions of years,” says Demián Bichir, who plays astronaut Sanchez. “The planet will survive without us, it’s us who are at risk.”
Watching the harsh, inhabitable conditions of the film’s terrain, it’s hard not to countenance some kind of environmental apocalypse. “I think regardless of the government or the country, we all individually, and as countries, are culpable for what is happening to our planet,” says David Oyelowo, who plays Commander Gordon Adewole. “No one is exempt from the effects we're having on the planet.”
The signal is down at his station, and Augustine is forced to take Iris along on a harrowing journey to reach another satellite that could feasibly get in contact with the spaceship. Their wordless adventure is frequently intercut with sepia-tinged memories of Augustine’s failed relationship with a woman named Jean (Sophie Rundle) decades earlier, which produced a child that he presumedly had zero contact with. The scene also regularly shifts to the spaceship, where the hopeful crew – led by Commander Gordon and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones) – are battling against asteroids and radio silence in a doomed homecoming trip.
(Trivia fact: Felicity Jones found out she was pregnant after being cast, and George Clooney simply rewrote her part to accommodate. “I did get to sit down a lot, which was a real joy,” says Jones. It ultimately adds layers of jeopardy and hope to the story. Clooney revealed to us that, “The fact that Felicity ended up being pregnant […] gave us something that now feels like we should have done it all along, which is to have this other through line, this future, going through it.”)
The ship hurtles onwards, while Augustine and Iris defy death back on Earth. Furious snow storms and sub-zero temperatures threaten to derail their journey, but they eventually make it to the next space station and finally make crackly contact. Augustine sombrely tells them that they have no hope of making a safe return to Earth – that they should fly back to the planet they came from and start humanity afresh.
Sanchez and his fellow astronaut Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) decide to return to Earth anyway. Mitchell receives a video message from his wife, who has evacuated Earth with his sick sons, and it reminds him of the vow he made that he would come back to Earth. Ultimately, living without them was no life at all. “It’s my job to keep a promise that I made to my family,” he tells Commander Gordon. Sanchez is driven by the tragic memories of his late daughter, a need to confront death, and to take home the body of Maya (Tiffany Boone), a young astronaut who died onboard.
Sully gets back on the line to Augustine, to tell him that she and Commander Gordon are returning to the habitable planet. Then Sully reveals to him that he is one of the reasons that she joined the space program in the first place; that he had done some work with her mother, Jean Sullivan. Augustine’s ears prick up, and a wave of realisation washes over him. She reveals her real name to be Iris. Tears fall down his cheeks. “It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “What’s it like there Iris? Tell me about it?”
She goes on to describe the beauty of mankind’s potential new home – the place that Augustine dedicated his life to discovering, sacrificing his relationships in the process. As he listens, a stunning vista appears once, with a silhouette of Augustine holding the young girl’s hand, before cutting out and then reappearing, this time without the girl. The child was a figment of Augustine’s imagination; a conjured memory of his estranged child with Jean, driving him on to save mankind. Little did he know that it was in fact his child that he would be saving. He smiles, finally, as he looks out alone upon the imagined planet, glowing orange, blue and purple. “It’s like landing in Oz and seeing real colour for the first time,” she says. He decides not to tell Sully the truth.
Then the signal cuts out. “I guess it’s just us now,” says Commander Gordon. “Just us,” replies Sully. The camera lingers on them uncomfortably as they get to work and the credits roll, saying no more.
So why was the still camera trained on them for so long? “My intention in that shot was to have it sort of suddenly seep in that they've now got a much greater responsibility than themselves, which is, they have the responsibility of mankind. That's a that's a big responsibility,” Clooney told us. “My intention at the end was to have the overwhelming feeling of responsibility, and then the vision of, ‘Okay, now let's get back to work’.
“You can only address big issues by putting your head down and going back to work.”
The Midnight Sky is out now on Netflix
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