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Arts and Culture

George Clooney Envisions The End Of The World In His New Movie, 'The Midnight Sky'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

George Clooney envisions the end of the world in his new movie "The Midnight Sky." And our critic Bob Mondello says he does that both on screen and from the director's chair.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Words on screen at the start tell us we're at an observatory in the Arctic and that it's February 2049, three weeks after the event. What event isn't clear. But whatever it is, it's cataclysmic, causing all but one of the observatory's employees, Augustine, played by George Clooney, to head for points south.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Still time to change your mind.

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Augustine) Like a race to see who could die first.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Terminal patient outlives the rest of humanity. Someone should put you in a medical journal.

CLOONEY: (As Augustine) Nobody around to read it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) If you stop the transfusions, you won't last a week.

CLOONEY: (As Augustine) If I was in a hurry to die, I'd go with you.

MONDELLO: They look at the line of people leaving.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They all want to be home.

CLOONEY: (As Augustine) Where is that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, for you, I guess that's here.

MONDELLO: Augustine has made observatories his home for decades. As a young scientist back in what would have been just about now, he looked at what humans were doing to this planet and set about trying to find an escape route. One of Jupiter's moons looked promising. Today should have been the realization of a 30-year dream, the crew of an exploratory mission returning from Jupiter brimming with good news. But they've come out of weeks of radio silence to more radio silence - a whole planet's worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) If Mojave goes offline, then Spain or Australia immediately grabs the signal - no gaps. We're not receiving anything.

MONDELLO: Augustine, meanwhile, having stayed on alone at the observatory to try to warn them, has discovered first that his transmitter isn't strong enough...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

CLOONEY: (As Augustine) Come in, Aether. This is Barbeau Observatory. Are you receiving this?

MONDELLO: ...And second, that he might not, after all, be alone at the observatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM SOUNDING)

MONDELLO: A fire alarm in the kitchen sends him running. And it's when he's put the fire out and the smoke clears that his heart nearly stops. There's a little girl. He gets back on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

CLOONEY: (As Augustine) A family member has been left behind. Somebody needs to come back for her.

MONDELLO: But there's no one to come back, which will make a cross-glacier trek to a stronger transmitter tricky. Clooney is working from a script by Mark L. Smith, whose screenplay for "The Revenant" created a roadmap for films about loners battling the elements. He puts his character through wintry hell in the Arctic.

And having once been through a bit of outer space hell in "Gravity," Clooney is just the guy to orchestrate calamities for the folks on the Jupiter mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MIDNIGHT SKY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I can't pull it up on radar.

MONDELLO: Credit Clooney with essentially making two differently tense movies here, one dealing intimately with a planet's mortality, the other finding epic imagery for personal mortality. Both are designed for a wide screen that almost no one's going to see "Midnight Sky" on. But that's OK. The action mechanics are rarely as compelling as the film's portrait of a world we've managed to destroy just three decades from now.

The disaster is kept vague, so you can insert your own details - the unbreathable eco-future of "Blade Runner 2049" maybe, since this one's set in 2049 - or the nuclear war aftermath of "On The Beach," a film that's given two separate shoutouts, once when a member of the space crew is watching its stars Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE BEACH")

AVA GARDNER: (As Moira) I'm so frightened.

GREGORY PECK: (As Dwight) I'm so sorry for so many things.

MONDELLO: ...And again in the credits. In flashbacks, that's Ethan Peck, Gregory's grandson, doing a fine Clooney impression as the young Augustine.

"The Midnight Sky," let's note, manages to find more glimmers of hope than either of those other dystopias, maybe because we need hope in mid-pandemic, or maybe just because Clooney, at heart, is an optimist.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.