The Midnight Sky (2020), directed by George Clooney

An acquaintance of mine is a realtor. I have known him for many years. He is a very serious and industrious person. Although he began his career in his twenties strictly selling properties, he moved into securing mortgages for his customers, and now even does commercial property management. Periodically, I would suggest that he date, get married, and begin to start a family.

 I reminded him that when he gets older all these possibilities become more difficult. He is now in his late forties, still single, and totally immersed in his real estate business. He spoke to me recently about his existential loneliness, but I could not offer him any panacea. He had made his choices and now was bearing the consequences of his earlier life decisions. This is similar to what happens in The Midnight Sky, the story of Augustine Lofthouse, an ambitious scientist whose lifework is to find a habitable planet where humanity can grow. His work defines him as a man of intellectual power but he has little empathy for others.

Augustine is a loner. After giving a lecture on the potential for life on K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, he meets Jean Sullivan and begins a romantic relationship, the consequences of which is the birth of a daughter. Augustine, however, is obsessed with his own scientific research and does not commit to marriage with Jean, refusing even to acknowledge his fatherhood.

In 2049, thirty years after the birth of his daughter, the earth experiences a catastrophic event in which most inhabitants are wiped out. Augustine, now laboring in a remote laboratory in the Arctic, is sick and knows that his days are numbered. However, he is imbued with a sense of mission and wants to contact any functioning spacecraft and inform its crew of what has happened on earth. His goal: tell them not to return to an inhospitable planet, but rather journey to find another planet on which to survive and create a new world.

Augustine discovers Aether, a spacecraft that is still functioning. It is now returning to earth from Jupiter where its crew has explored K-23 for possible future colonization. Augustine attempts to contact them. They are unaware of what has transpired on earth, but Augustine’s antenna is too weak to make contact with their ship. He travels, despite freezing temperatures and harsh winds, to another base in the Arctic wasteland where there is a stronger antenna and eventually makes contact with them.

Unforeseen calamities occur, resulting in damage to Aether’s radar and communication system, but the crew is able to fix it. Once the repairs are made, the crew of Aether is confronted with a decision: to return to the earth or not. Sully, one of the astronauts, speaks to Augustine informing him that members of the crew with family on earth want to return there in spite of the danger. In their heart to heart conversation, secrets of the past are revealed that give us an understanding of why he is driven to save the crew in the twilight of his own life.

Film critic Joseph Morgenstern frames the film’s message in an idiosyncratic way: “In the here and now, the film makes a dramatic case for planetary stewardship, and a stirring one for the connections we crave. In the course of those deep-space repairs the astronauts start to sing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.  ‘Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you.’ It sounds silly in the telling, but not in the singing. Whenever they can, reaching out and touching is what people do.”

Augustine lives in his own private world for the bulk of his life, disconnected to other human beings, not reaching out and touching other people. Dina Mensch, a Jewish educator, writes about the importance of living a life of balance between satisfying one’s own intellectual and occupational interests and allowing our inner selves, our souls, to grow and connect with others:The human being was created with a soul, which is a portion, or reflection, so to speak, of Godliness. This soul is what differentiates us from animals. If God created me, I must have a unique purpose in this world! Therefore, the point of my existence, and my self-worth, revolve around my moral choices, not my professional success.”

Mensch encourages us not to wait for crisis in our lives to make a self-evaluation. Augustine Lofthouse in The Midnight Sky waits too long to make a self-evaluation. When he realizes what he has missed in life, it is too late to make a mid-course correction.

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