Watching Midnight Sky at your estranged Father's house on Boxing Day
The road into the oceanside town where my father lives is long, rural. Every car does well over the speed limit. My brother is driving. There’s no music playing. My brother doesn’t seem to mind, though. This is the most time we’ve spent together all year, I think.
As we follow the coast line, trees border the road ahead, obscuring the town. A water tower rises over the canopy, crowned in cellular repeaters, a monument to a town no one cares about frankensteined to do one last task for the residents. Repeating signals for cell phone reception so I can check my dating app in the passenger seat.
Pulling off the highway, we pass by the gas station, bakery and fish and chip shop combined. I can see blue and waves further out. I haven’t told my father that my ex and I split up, not really. The closest I managed was ‘it’s just me this time’ via text, when explaining how many guests to expect. My father met her only once, afterall. More than any other girl in my adult life, but it was the last time I saw him, almost a year ago now.
The Midnight Sky is a film based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight. The film was directed by George Clooney, written by Mark L. Smith. The story is a bleak science fiction narrative that follows Augustine Lofthouse. Augustine, played by Clooney, is perhaps the only living person on Earth. Everyone else has fled aboard spaceships to avoid an ionizing radiation that plagues the planet.
Augustine suffers from some unknown condition. He’s constantly taking weird futuristic blood transfusions. When we meet him, he’s alone in an Arctic base, drinking himself stupid, attempting self-destruction by attrition. He tries to contact an interplanetary craft, the Aether, to let them know the Earth is cooked. It’s evident the Aether has headed to find a new home for humanity, and is returning with news of their success. Augustine warns them to stay away, but fails to get through.
We watch Augustine slowly realise he’s been blacking out. The first indication is a kitchen fire he doesn’t remember starting. More concerning, a young girl appears. A stowaway. Or... stow-back. She cannot speak, communicating via drawings. Her name is Iris, it seems. At the end of the world, the dying Augstine is not alone. But what to do with this girl?
Augustine’s reluctance is canny. I can feel him avoiding connection. Not a reluctant hero, exactly, but a reluctant human. A resistance to engaging, a resistance to being part of the collective. The two strike up a curious relationship. Augustine wants to sleep in his room alone, but Iris sleeps in his doorway nonetheless, refusing to be alone.
The decorations in my father’s living room are from my childhood. The wall-sized indigenous print of Uluru that predates my creation, a relic of a marriage before a marriage before a marriage. The tiger-shaped coffee table from Africa or Maleny, I’m not sure. The sofa I spent so many days on in primary school while my health failed me. Relics of a past life—too distant, each of them, and the room feels unknowable now. I remember the couch in a house on a hill with a dog and the bedroom I shared with my brother. I remember playing Nintendo in the basement, Runescape on the computer. Cold tiles on the ground floor that creaked underfoot.
We’ve brought ice and an esky with us. My father doesn’t have a second fridge now, he explains. I ask no follow up questions, and my brother seems to think better of it too. I have six tall cans of beer with me that go in the esky, along with soft drink and, to my surprise, a six pack of tall cans my father has purchased. Like father, like… well...
My father is roasting meat in the coal barbeque. We sit out the back of his house, the absence of his recently passed dog quiet, but ever present. We start with champagne. His wife is drinking non-alcoholic bubbles, but at this point I’m determined to grow comfortable, so I kill my first glass in a handful of slurps. We eat crackers, talk of little things. We talk about my novels, I suppose. This publication. My podcast. Mostly, we talk about my corporate day job, the same cheap elmer’s glue that has sustained my relationship with my father all these years. We both care intensely about what we do. And short of any common ground, this seems to be the thread that we can readily pick up any of the three times we see each other a year.
I tell stories, I write novels. He helps people do their best in their jobs, I think. Enables them to provide for their families, I think.
Sitting out back, the house feels the same as it did seven years ago when they moved in. I pull my first tall can of beer from the esky, crack it, and drink. The roast wafts from the barbeque. I finish the can and crack another. I realise too late that my father’s wife is out of work - retired, perhaps, but it’s hard to say, really. The year has been cruel and violent to all, and though no one says it, I pick up enough context cues to realise she’s been unemployed for a spell. Not voluntarily. I finish my second beer and wonder if my brother knew about this.
Augustine decides that he must contact the spaceship, Aether. In part to warn them of how dangerous the Earth is, in part to tell them he has a kid who needs saving. Augustine is dying regardless, but the girl might yet live, it seems. The signal isn’t strong enough to reach the ship, and Augustine keeps this to himself to start with, reluctant to trust Iris. All is not lost though. If Augustine and Iris can get to a nearby base, they can use a much stronger antenna to contact the Aether.
What follows is a barbaric journey aboard a snowmobile, where Iris and Augstine almost run afoul of the weather. They nearly die in a nail-biting action sequence where a decaying fuselage threatens to plummet them into freezing water. They lose the snowmobile. Augustine loses his transfusion equipment, surely dooming him. But he forges on, desperate to get Iris to safety. A paternal instinct is at play, some nascent tendency Augustine has to protect Iris, to serve those who come next. Or he’s trying to save the Aether, stop them from re-entering the atmosphere and being shredded by the radiation, but he also needs to get Iris off the planet.
They both get to safety at the other base, and using the stronger equipment, contacts the Aether. But all can’t end well so easily. No, the Aether hits an asteroid field that gums up their communications systems. We transition here to the crew of the Aether for a while, following the pregnant Sully and her partner Commander Adewole. Sully and Adewole take a spacewalk with the flight-man Maya to fix the communications situation. But, as it should be in any good story, a second asteroid strike bombardes the Aether, fatally wounding Maya. Progressive complications ahoy.
Sully manages to contact our man Augustine. Against his best interest to save Iris, Augustine urges them to head back to K-23 (a moon or whatever, it really isn’t important) to start their new life. Earth is cooked, guys, don’t come back, he tells them.
The roast is good. I’ve had another tall beer by now, number three, but I feel uncomfortably in my body, not the goal at all. The knot in the base of my right shoulder that appeared the night of our breakup aches, not loosening. We eat smoked beef and smoked ribs, vegetables, potatoes. It’s incredible. I have a small helping and stop. Disordered eating, not an eating disorder my therapist’s words echo in my head as they do most days. I step out and take another beer from the esky. I don’t go back in right away. I crack the can and wander through the yard. My father’s wife has dozens of garden beds, plants, little barrels where fish swim. Herbs, chilli, vegetables. I think of my empty one room flat, and go back inside.
We finish dinner, and I politely decline desert: dairy, after all. My father suggests we watch the new Geroge Clooney movie on Netflix. It’s science fiction, the genre is one of the few things he imparted to me as a young man. I recall summers on his sofa watching DVD after DVD of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of rewatching Star Wars over and over again, and agree.
Two of our side characters, Tom Mitchell (played by everyone’s true daddy Kyle Chandler) and Sanchez decide to take a shuttle back to Earth to find their families, despite knowing their chance of surviving reentry is basically zero. Sanchez plans to bury Maya’s body, he tells Mitchell. These two are unwilling to give up the promise of their past lives, so unwilling, they trade in their future. A tacit agreement that what was is more important than what could be.
We pivot back to Earth. Augustine’s narrative, which takes up most of our screen time, relies entirely on Clooney’s ability to reflect the interiority of this character. Augustine is unknowably smart and ingenuitive, but he can’t maintain relationships. Because Iris cannot speak, Augustine bounces off himself, and the periodic drawing or sharp expression from Iris, dragging us closer and closer into Augustine’s perspective.
Through flashback, we learn he elected not to be part of his daughter’s life, knowing he will not have time between research that might save humanity. The story presents this impossible scenario through the mundane truth of work and family. Augustine ‘owes’ humanity his time to develop interstellar travel to save all, but at the cost of his own mundane happiness.
The austere chromes, clean halls, minimal furniture of the arctic bases contrast with the brutal environments of the arctic and the invisible but lethal radiation sweeping the planet. So too do they contrast with Augustine’s scratchy beard and dishevelled hair, a man out of place in upmarket sci fi. The Earth is poison, eating itself alive, just like Augustine’s body fails itself. He is a relic out of time. The ultimate cost of his research is not just his relationships, but his life, too. Augustine lives tortured by these choices despite that he was right to sacrifice himself. If he had not, humanity would have fallen. The story validates his choices, and his regret is killing him as much as his unknown disease.
In the closing moments, Augustine contacts the Aether one final time and reveals Sully is his daughter. He’s been tracking the Aether for this exact reason, but never elaborates why he didn’t go with them. And I try to feel for Augustine, and try to feel for his daughter. A man who did what he did for the right sort of reasons, but with the wrong sort of consequences.
She’s spent her entire life valorising Augustine, raised on the seeds of his myth: the great scientist who will save humanity. This is where I diverge from Sully. I held no illusions about the fallibility of my parents growing up. Growing up far too fast blunted Sully’s revelation for me. Augustine revealing his parenthood bottoms out as it becomes clear Iris was just a hallucination. There never was a girl. His imagination of his daughter way back when has taken over, holding no material relationship to the Sully aboard the Aether. I wonder if Augustine decided to die for the sake of this illusion. Or maybe he decided to die to protect himself. He saved humanity, and now, after all this time, what if beginning a relationship with his daughter is worse than living with the fantasy. The possibility of what could be is eclipsed by the pain of what was. For Augustine, for Mitchell, for Sanchez, for Earth.
Augustine says farewell, and walks into the howling white of the arctic, his very boot prints blown to nothing in an instant.
I stare at the credits, internally reckoning with the idea that the right thing to do may be walking away, as Augustine did. A thought, given my turbulent relationship with my family, that sits uncomfortably at the back of my throat.
We all agree the ending felt disconnected, strange. My father’s wife prepares for bed and my brother takes over the TV. I step outside. I crack another beer, skull it in a few minutes, crack the last beer, and put my feet up. I sip the last beer while I smoke. I’m listening to The Eels and let the numb, drunkenness soak through my bones. All I can think about is my ex, and how alien this house is, and how at once the decorations from my childhood feel familiar yet distant, and I imagine that’s what her bed would feel like now. A place I am desperate to be but one that no longer really exists, not in the way I want. Not in the way I remember. This is Augustine’s desire too, maybe. Nostalgia for something that never could be.
The table I have my feet on looks out at an ancient wooden trellis separating the garden. Vines knot their way up and over the top, tumbling into scattered flowers that bloomed in spring, now wilted from the heat. The flowers are wild, unmatching, less pretty than conflicted. I wonder why I keep coming back to these places. Not this house, exactly, but, rather, why I am stuck six months ago, nursing a brief period of unmyred peace, of love. Of home.
I realise that I’m Mitchell. I’m the guy so captured by the past that I’m strangling my future. The memories of Sunday mornings, of Tuesday afternoons, of cooking her dinner, of simply being, they keep me in that one bedroom flat where we spent a year together. I snub the roach, and light another.
My anxiety melts away, unspooling the hard knots in the back of my mind. I never feel comfortable in the house, not really, not even the next morning, but I manage to sleep. I wake up. We drive back to the city in relative silence, still no music. Heading back, but not home. Home is nowhere, not right now: it was that lightless one bedroom flat with the awful neighbour and our bed and hand upon hand, heart upon heart, and that’s a place that no longer is. Nothing left but the memory of the thing, the could of been, the reality now whisked into the great white nothing like so many boot prints in so much wind.