TRANSMISSION IMPOSSIBLE
SFX|Holiday Special 2020
GEORGE CLOONEY PLAYS A DOOMED SURVIVOR OF A GLOBAL APOCALYPSE IN NEW NETFLIX MOVIE THE MIDNIGHT SKY . SCREENWRITER MARK L SMITH AND CLOONEY HIMSELF TELL US HOW THEY STEERED IT TO THE SCREEN
IAN BERRIMAN

GET ME SOMEONE WHO CAN WRITE ABOUT A guy tramping through the snow!” a cigar-chomping producer bellows into his phone. You could be forgiven for wondering if that’s how Mark L Smith got the gig on Netflix movie The Midnight Sky, given that it’s similarly snow-shrouded to his Oscar winning frontiersman tale The Revenant. But there’s much more to the story than that. For starters, half of it unfolds in the even chillier environs of space.

Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2017 novel Good Morning, Midnight, it’s set in 2049, and centres on Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney, who also directs), an astronomer based at a remote Arctic station. When a humanity-ending global catastrophe (something to do with the atmosphere) strikes, his colleagues fly off to be with their families at the end.

But Lofthouse – who’s dying from cancer – stays behind, using the little time left to him to try and contact the Aether: a space vessel returning from a recently discovered moon of Jupiter, whose crew includes Felicity Jones’s Sully. This involves a perilous journey to another station – accompanied by Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a close-mouthed young girl who’s somehow been left behind…

It was the writer’s manager who brought the book to him. He was immediately smitten. “I just fell in love with the characters and the world,” Smith tells SFX. “Lily BrooksDalton is such a wonderful writer. I love stories that strip away a lot of the technology, like a Revenant situation, where it’s man against nature, and man against himself.

“This provided that, in a way, because of Augustine being in the Arctic. But it was also the relationship between Augustine and the little girl, Iris. There’s something so special there, as you watch that grow, and watch where it leads. At the same time it’s bouncing back and forth to the crew on Aether, and the relationships there. So it was really the characters that pulled me into this. Everything for me starts with character.”

This doesn’t mean the story made its way to the screen untouched, of course. The basic plot is the same, but the writer did make some tweaks. “The novel was quieter, and a little slower moving, and not quite as big,” Smith explains. “We took the characters and set-ups and added some fun action. He goes on this journey in the novel as well, but it’s more of a vacation trip. They don’t go through any of the dangers – we added all of that. And there’s less of a feel of the pressure of having to get there now – it’s much more of a relaxed story.”

In this version Clooney’s character ends up, for example, zooming about on a snowmobile, and being plunged into sub-zero waters when the ice breaks. Everything’s better with extra snowmobile, we observe – it’s one of the rules of screenwriting. “Yeah, exactly. That’s it!” Smith laughs.

The Midnight Sky remains an unorthodox post-apocalypse, though, far from your standard Roland Emmerich blockbuster. No landmarks are trashed. The protagonist isn’t fighting for their own survival, as there’s no hope of that. And the apocalypse occurs off-screen, and isn’t the focus. It’s barely even clear what form it takes.

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