LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
I'm Linda Holmes. I'm here with Stephen Thompson. Hi, Stephen.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hello, Linda.
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HOLMES: The new George Clooney movie, "The Midnight Sky," takes place in two very lonely post-apocalyptic settings - the Arctic and outer space. Clooney plays a scientist at an Arctic research station who tries to tell the crew of a NASA mission that Earth is no longer any kind of a place to return to.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
There's lots of blowing snow and lots of space debris. And if you're thinking Clooney probably has a big, bushy beard and is looking all haunted, well, you're exactly right.
I'm Glen Weldon.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "The Midnight Sky" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. To set up "The Midnight Sky" a little bit - and it does need some setup I feel - it's based on a novel called "Good Morning Midnight" by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Clooney directed it as well as starring in it. It features Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler, who are all in space - and a young actor named Caoilinn Springall, who plays a 7-year-old girl named Iris who Clooney's scientist character, Augustine, discovers has been left behind with him when everyone else evacuated. OK. So you got Clooney and the girl in the Arctic, and you got the space crew in space.
It takes place after some kind of massive environment-destroying catastrophe that they don't specify. And the bottom line is that Clooney, who is this lonely and sick man who has given up on his own survival, wants to prevent the crew of the mission - which doesn't know what has happened and is headed home as planned - from coming back and presumably perishing. And now, of course, he has to keep watch over this kid he found wandering around. There are some apparent plot holes in this scenario that they do deal with that would require more explanation than we should probably give, so we will leave it there. The movie is available on Netflix starting today.
Glen, I am curious what you thought of this movie, because I was surprised when I went to write the intro how much set up I felt it required.
WELDON: Yup. Yup. Yup. You know, I'm always on board for a big thinky (ph) space movie - "Solaris," "Moon," "2001," "Prometheus" - sort of - and, you know, the first 140 minutes of "Interstellar" anyway. I'm always in. I had a perfectly nice time with this movie. I like all these actors a whole lot - that helps. I recommend it if you're up for a quiet, kind of strangely mournful weekend afternoon viewing. I ultimately don't think it's as thinky as it thinks it is, and that's down to the screenplay. It's not that there's a twist really, but there is a revelation. And certain information just gets withheld for far too long, giving the audience plenty of time to figure out what's going on.
WELDON: Which means that when the film's revelations are revealed, they're not particularly revelatory. They don't pack the punch that the film needs them to.
WELDON: There is, for me anyway, a pretty central plot question hanging over this thing, which I won't spoil. But at some point, a trip gets taken for reasons I didn't quite follow until I talked it out with you this morning, Linda, so...
WELDON: So that's it. That's it - perfectly fine.
HOLMES: Yeah. I thought it was interesting to look at. And it's rare for me to say this movie might have been more effective for me in a theater, because I don't typically find it to be a big difference because I have a big TV and good sound and all that stuff. I do think maybe these vast expanses, both of space and snow, might have been slightly more impressive because I do think - the whole point of this, I think, is competing notions of vastness - right? - cold and icy versus black and spacey.
There are sequences in both that involve people who are imperiled by being in these two places. And there is a shot in the space section that is not a happy shot, but I did think it was a very inventive shot that I had not seen before. I think the space work looks great. Obviously, Clooney has the experience from "Gravity" and stuff like that. And I think it shows that he is at ease as a director working with space stuff.
I'm really surprised that they haven't kind of made more of a narrative out of talking about the shooting of this movie, because it does give you that feeling that Clooney and this young girl spent a lot of time in extremely cold temperatures. They shot a bunch of this in Iceland. So I was sort of interested in the shooting of it. I felt like I would rather have watched a documentary about how they made it than watching the movie itself. And I think that comes from, as you said, the screenplay, which for me just kind of sits there.
WELDON: This is going to sound weird, but I really liked the aesthetics of the spaceship, which sounds like that's like the science fiction equivalent of saying, you know, great gowns, beautiful gowns. But that's not what I mean.
HOLMES: I was just going to say - well, or good personality.
WELDON: Yes, exactly. That was a strangely luxe spaceship, and I couldn't figure out why I was focusing on it so much. And then I realized our collective notion of space travel - in movies, anyway - has been shaped by two films, "2001" on one end of the spectrum and "Alien" on the other. So you got "2001's," you know, sterile white pharmacy, and you've got "Alien's" ugly, utilitarian fire escape.
WELDON: This was not anywhere along that spectrum. This was more like living in an IKEA. And the Arctic outpost too was so clean. And that's why - you know, the actress Felicity Jones was pregnant when this movie was made, it wasn't in the script so they kind of adjusted the script around it to have her be pregnant - that raises the question of, why would you get pregnant in space? On this spaceship, it makes sense. I mean, that is a pretty comfortable-looking spaceship. I would have all the comforts of home if I were flying back from Jupiter.
HOLMES: (Laughter) Well, and she is - David Oyelowo is her partner. And so they are together. And, I mean, we all know how she got pregnant. But I do think the dangling question of why you would get pregnant in space continues to bother me, despite the fact that, as you say, it would be a perfectly hospitable environment for the activity of couplehood, I'll just say.
HOLMES: I think one of the things that I found frustrating about this movie is, you know, I think they cut down the interiority of the characters a lot from what's probably in the book.
HOLMES: Which is sort of unavoidable unless you're going to go with monologues or voiceovers or some of those very ineffective devices that we've seen entirely too many times. But what you're left with is a movie that's kind of - I think it's great to look at. I think it's very nicely shot. I think Clooney is a good director. I think Clooney is a straight-up good director. I think he's working in some very challenging settings. And it's kind of a directorial accomplishment, but it's kind of directing these scenes that kind of clunk along this processed plot in some ways. And I just was confused by the end about, like, what do I take away from this about these people? That's not kind of very elementary, do you know what I mean? Particularly Sully, who is the astronaut played by Felicity Jones, I just didn't feel like I got to know her very much.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, I agree with you. The script is thin on interiority, on personality, but so much of that is put over by these actors. I mean, you know, Kyle Chandler and all these actors are really good at giving you the most with the least.
HOLMES: Yes, I think that's right.
WELDON: I think the actor who got the rawest deal, though, is Ethan Peck. He plays young George Clooney. Ethan Peck played Spock on "Discovery" - "Star Trek: Discovery." He really got a raw deal because Clooney doesn't just dub his line, but they blended his voice with Clooney's.
HOLMES: Oh, does he really?
WELDON: He does. And it's better and cheaper than de-aging Clooney digitally, but why bother? I mean, we're grown-ups. We could figure out, OK, he's playing the same character, but younger.
WELDON: it just reminded me the same thing happened with the actor Jeff East in "Superman: The Movie." He played young Clark Kent, so Christopher Reeve dubbed him? Don't do this, movies. It's just weird. Even if you don't know what Ethan Peck sounds like or what Jeff East sounds like, you know he doesn't sound like George Clooney. It is really distracting.
HOLMES: Well, and it always creates this kind of uncanny valley thing where you keep - this is what happened to me for years and years with "Superman" is I would look at that and be like, wait, is that Christopher - that's not Christopher Reeve. You know, and it creates that unease. But I think in a way that, to me, speaks to part of what's going on with the movie, which is that it's a little overdetermined with choices in some ways. And I am always up for kind of a loneliness movie. I think "The Martian," which is one of my favorite recent movies, is a great loneliness movie. And in a way, I would have preferred to just stay with Clooney. I think I would have found a movie about just the Clooney isolation story - but then there's genuinely no plot. And I, you know, then you're just watching a guy, like, slowly freeze to death. And that is a movie that, like, unless you're Werner Herzog, you can't really put that over.
HOLMES: So, you know, I think it has some clear limitations. But I do think, as we said, the aesthetic of it, the look of it and the shooting of it are very impressive. It's sort of all directing and production design and performances, as you said, performances with - phew (ph) - very little writing.
WELDON: I agree. I have nothing more to say about this movie (laughter).
HOLMES: Yeah, it leaves you a little flat-footed, like, it's fine. It probably is what you think it is. But we want to know what you think about "The Midnight Sky." As we said, it is streaming on Netflix. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen, always good to talk to you.
WELDON: Thank you, friend.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you'd like to support the work that we do at POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR and NPR, donate to your local member station at donate.npr.org/happy. We will see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about "Wonder Woman 1984."
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