Who needs nightmares like George Clooney's The Midnight Sky when there's the news?

Ben Child
·4-min read

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi used to be cosy fun, like getting in from the freezing misery of a January day and snuggling down in the knowledge that, in another life, you’d still be out there shivering in torment. It’s meant to be a glimpse into a future that almost certainly won’t take place, a vision of someone else’s horrifying existence that makes us feel better about our own average lives.

And yet, watching the new trailer for George Clooney’s Oscar-bait sci-fi drama The Midnight Sky, it struck me that this is exactly the kind of movie that, in a pandemic-torn world struggling with rightwing populism and imminent environmental meltdown, is about as cosy as plunging into a bath full of ice and cut glass.

The film sees poor old George – in beardy, underplayed Syriana mode – struggling to get a message out to a group of astronauts that they might be better off staying up in space given that something terrible has happened back home. The promo hints at plenty of trudging through snow and probably some kind of heroic sacrifice, perhaps allowing the continuation of human civilisation beyond Earth’s borders. Though quite what future that would be, given that the planet appears to have suffered some kind of nuclear apocalypse, iwe don’t know.

Clooney has described the movie as a cross between Gravity and The Revenant, but it also recalls the hard-to-watch John Hillcoat drama The Road, with perhaps a hint of Snowpiercer. The only cheery thing about The Midnight Sky is the waggish musing in some parts that the white-bearded Clooney might be playing a sort-of real-life Santa, spreading joy and the gift of not dying a horrible death from radiation poisoning to the remnants of mankind from his dinky Arctic base. But this is not the rosy-cheeked little Saint Nick from Elf or the Santa Clause movies.

The trailer for The Midnight Sky arrives at the same time as news of potential reboots for two less sombre sci-fi stalwarts. Legendary Pictures wants to bring back Buck Rogers, an intriguing blend of space opera and post-apocalyptic sci-fi whose 1979 film (a TV pilot) and subsequent two-season run is fondly remembered by fans. Then there’s the long-mooted film version of Battlestar Galactica, which in its latest configuration has X-Men boss Simon Kinberg on board as writer-producer.

The latter also has elements of post-apocalyptic futurism. Although it is about humans who initially appear to have no connection to Earth, it is very much in the “mankind v machine uprising” mode. The 2004 TV reboot of Glen A Larson’s short-lived late 70s show, which arrived during the so-called war on terror, intelligently played on contemporary concerns about torture and mistreatment of enemy combatants. It asked smart questions about the nature of sentience and the soul, though flagged after a bravura first season.

How successful are new film reboots likely to be? Buck Rogers will face a struggle to balance its hard sci-fi and pulpy space thriller elements, and yet any saga that helped to popularise ray guns and cosmic space adventure ought to find its 21st-century audience. Battlestar Galactica seems better suited to TV than film, with its continuing search for a new home planet for the ragtag survivors of the machine apocalypse: no previous version has solved the puzzle of what happens once the humans have escaped their Cylon adversaries.

In post-apocalyptic terms, these fantasies are surely the kind of movies that will warm the cockles as we hunker down for more lockdown with one hopeful eye on the US presidential election, amid the nagging fear that the world’s leading narcissist might do something really crazy if he loses this time. Films such as The Midnight Sky seem a little too chilling and close to home for comfort.

Yet one of the most popular movies on Netflix at the height of the first wave of Covid-19, was the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion, which suggests confronting the horror of one’s realities can give a thrill. But give me a good ray gun and some swashbuckling cosmic heroism any day when we only have to turn on the news to feel truly terrified.