Why George Clooney's 'The Midnight Sky' resonates differently during a pandemic

Brian Truitt, USA TODAY
·4 min read

A dying man bonding with a young girl amid a global disaster. A crew of astronauts working together to make it back home. The man desperately radioing a woman in space to warn her of impending doom.

Director George Clooney finished filming his apocalyptic drama “The Midnight Sky” (in select theaters now, streaming Wednesday on Netflix), a movie all about making human connection, in February, but a month later, the world shut down because of COVID-19 and inevitably made the film resonate in a much different way.

“When we first started, it was about all the things we're capable of doing to mankind, the things we're capable of doing to one another, including sort of destroying the Earth one way or another, whether it's a nuclear holocaust or we blow a hole in the atmosphere,” says Clooney, who finished the movie from his home. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, “the idea suddenly became, well, it's actually the effects of the inability to be with the people you love and to be able to be near them, or even communicate with people at all.”

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Augustine (George Clooney, with Caoilinn Springall) attempts to communicate with a returning spaceship in "The Midnight Sky."
Augustine (George Clooney, with Caoilinn Springall) attempts to communicate with a returning spaceship in "The Midnight Sky."

Clooney also stars in “Midnight Sky” as Augustine Lofthouse, a famous astronomer riding out the end of the world, and the end of his life, in the Arctic Circle after a cataclysmic event causes deadly radiation to spread all over the world. He finds an 8-year-old stowaway in the observatory named Iris (Caoilinn Springall), and they weather a nasty snowstorm to warn the crew of the spaceship Aether – returning from a two-year mission to see if a newly discovered moon of Jupiter is livable – about the fate of Earth.

When David Oyelowo, who plays Aether Commander Tom Adewole, recently watched “Midnight Sky,” “it was no longer fantasy in the same way,” he says. “There is a moment in the film where we are all looking at planet Earth shrouded in this pollution, nuclear cloud, whatever. And I had that face looking at the TV for months, looking at the rising COVID numbers and what was going on worldwide."

Kyle Chandler’s astronaut character, pilot Mitchell, communicates with his wife through video and eats breakfast with a hologram of his family. The movie also strikes him differently now, with one of his daughters living on the West Coast and “people are telling her don't come home” to Texas for Christmas, he says. “We can't see our loved ones, so instead we're looking at them on video and our telephones and Zoom and what have you. Everything's pretty impersonal. There are so many pieces of the film that have imitated life that it's really incredible.”

For Felicity Jones, who plays astronaut Sully, “it almost feels like documentary.” But even before COVID, her real life had an effect on the movie: Jones found out she was pregnant before production started, and Clooney retooled “Midnight Sky” to have it be part of the plot. “It intensified my appreciation of those themes. Exploring what the world was and what is the future for our children became even more relevant,” she says.

Astronauts Sully (Felicity Jones) and Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) learn of Earth's cataclysmic fate while returning home in "The Midnight Sky."
Astronauts Sully (Felicity Jones) and Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) learn of Earth's cataclysmic fate while returning home in "The Midnight Sky."

When it came to galactic stunt work while pregnant, Jones says, Clooney gave her “a pretty luxurious experience” on the set: “I had a very soft stool that I was sitting on, and I was giving the impression of zero gravity with this sort of wafting of my arms.” But she finds that one thing “Midnight Sky” and COVID-19 have in common is showing the fragility of mankind.

“We thought we were pretty untouchable, didn't we? And our foundations have been completely shaken up in a way that we just could have no idea of how strange that would be,” Jones says. “It is definitely something that the film is taking to an extreme. It's almost one step further than we are now. So in some respects, it's a bit of a warning shot, as is the pandemic.”

Kyle Chandler and director George Clooney enjoy a moment on the spaceship set of "The Midnight Sky."
Kyle Chandler and director George Clooney enjoy a moment on the spaceship set of "The Midnight Sky."

Oyelowo agrees. “In life and humanity right now, we are being afforded an opportunity for a reset. We are being afforded an opportunity to do things better going forward, whether it's how we treat each other, how we treat the planet, how we run things governmentally.”

While space movies have long explored people in confinement or quarantine, Clooney thinks the real-world isolation of COVID-19 is going to have a long-lasting effect on our collective psyche.

“Everyone, whether you've lost loved ones or whether you continue to have a job, you're still having this great deal of loss, this inability to be around one another,” Clooney says. “It's certainly not something that you thought of when you're making the film and not something you're happy about when it comes out. Those kinds of coincidences aren't good.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Midnight Sky': George Clooney's Netflix film resonates amid COVID