It’s probably no coincidence that the last major film release of 2020 is a movie in which the future of humankind hangs in the balance. It’s not like that’s a foreign concept, narratively, but to cap off 2020’s series of miseries with George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky seems fitting.
Set in the near future, The Midnight Sky takes place in the wake of a global cataclysm that has left Earth mostly uninhabitable and killing most of the population. Scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is stationed in a remote Arctic outpost, where he has been in isolation and searching for habitable planets for years. Lofthouse has chosen not to escape Earth with the other survivors; he’s dying of cancer, and has decided to wait out the rest of his life on the dying Earth.
Lofthouse decides to spend his remaining days trying to find and contact any space missions that may be unaware of Earth’s situation. He finds one, the ship Aether, which is returning from a mission to find habitable planets. As Lofthouse struggles to find a way to contact Aether, he crosses paths with a young, mute girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who has apparently been left behind in the last evacuation. Together, they set about trying to find ways to contact the ship.
Demián Bichir plays one of the astronauts, Sanchez, aboard the Aether alongside Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler. Talking about the film with him over Zoom (as you do), I bring up the fact that the film has extraordinarily relevant timing. The film’s shoot wrapped in late February, mere days before the pandemic was officially dubbed as such, and it is now seeing release a few days or weeks after the vaccine has begun to roll out worldwide.
“I think we have made those films over and over again in many different periods of our lives,” says Bichir. “Steven Soderbergh has this film, Contagion, that talks exactly about this same situation — and that was years ago. I think it’s just an extraordinary coincidence that this happened right now. We finished shooting right before the planet stopped. I understand why you might feel that the film is a little bit pessimistic, talking about this cataclysm type of thing. It’s a little demoralizing, right? But I do feel that there’s a lot of hope in it. If you take a look at these people who are trying to connect. These are the best representations of humans that we can find. We find them in science, in the arts, in sports. That’s who we are.
“Then, of course, we have our demons. We can create a lot of damage. It’s our hands, the chance to fix it. I think it’s a beautiful reminder of what we can achieve as humans, but also that it’s in our hands to fix anything we want to fix. We just have to take responsibility.”
In that sense, you can see a direct correlation between the responsibility that the film’s characters take and the responsibilities we all must take
“It tells a lot about us as humans,” he continues. “A lot of people — millions of people — are living in their own bubbles. They haven’t realized that there is no plan B. This is our planet. We’re here together – we’re in this together. We have to realize that whatever actions we take will affect our neighbour. My family, of course. But nowadays, it’s like this beautiful film that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu made, Babel? Whatever you do, it will create a ripple effect all over the world — in places you’ve never even been, especially now. It’s a perfect reminder about how much we have to stop being so nihilistc, step out of our own bubbles and consider that, in order to help… not millions, hopefully not yet, but in order to help all the people and all the doctors and healthcare workers. It’s very easy! You don’t have to give money! Stay home, wash your hands, wear a mask! What is so difficult about that?!”
In the film, Felicity Jones’s character is pregnant — a detail that wasn’t in the script but was added to adapt to the actress’s real-life pregnancy. Bichir’s words make me realize that I can easily draw parallels between that particular detail and the fact that, in the real world, people are still getting pregnant and making the conscious decision to have children despite the bleakness of the world at the moment. Just that notion sort of reacquaints me with the hope that Bichir argues is very much present in this end-of-the-world film.
“That’s what I mean by this film being hopeful,” he says. “Those beautiful people — those astronauts — they represent us and they represent our future. Just the fact that this is so perfectly linked to what’s happening right now? It makes the whole thing a tremendous moviemaking experience. And, of course, now you can watch it at home. This is who we are. We made this and we’ll make it through. We’ll overcome this when we understand that we are one.”
Like all actors working in Hollywood today, Bichir has had to contend with advances in CGI and special effects that mean acting opposite things that don’t exist. In The Midnight Sky, Bichir does a lot of acting against screens — but also against transparencies and projections, which to my mind makes the experience somewhat like acting in the theatre.
“You’re very close to the way it works,” says Bichir. “The first thing you learn as an actor when you’re getting the proper training and developing your craft is that your imagination is a key element that will solve many different problems you’ll encounter as an actor. One of the wonderful things about working with heavyweights — and I’ve seen this with Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, Chris Weitz, and Steven Soderbergh — is that they put together the best team of artists that can create this illusion in such a way that it’s so close to reality. So we didn’t really have to pretend much, because the work that our production designer did in this film was just fascinating. That space ship! If anyone had gotten the chance to really experience it… it was just like the real thing. The way it was lit… everything works! Even the images that we see on the screen — in those scenes, we usually play against a green screen, but in this case we were able to see most of those images. And it’s always better when you don’t have to pretend!”
The Midnight Sky is on Netflix as of Wednesday, Dec. 23. Watch the trailer below:
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