Space Is Deep

I watched the new film The Midnight Sky. I was originally going to watch it in the cinema, but even before the Tier 4 was introduced we thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to go out in such places as we were going to travel to see people on Christmas Day. That other plan got cancelled as well, so now I’ve watched it all on Netflix.

I wanted to see the film for the same reason I wanted to see Ad Astra last year, and Interstellar previously: because it looked like someone had the ambition to at least attempt something on the scale of 2001:A Space Odyssey. And all these films failed because, although they managed to match the long stretches of boredom, they can never catch the strangeness of the Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite section. The road not taken here is for someone to simply commission a new film adaptation that works off Arthur C.Clarke’s novel, in which there is a clear conventional science fiction interpretation of the final sequence: the Star Gate is an interstellar portal that leads through a “Grand Central Station” that clearly contains relics of other spaceships from other worlds; we emerge in to the derelict space stations of the alien civilisation, whose creators dissolved in to computational immateriality thousands of years ago; the final room where David Bowman is held as an experimental subject has been constructed from Earth broadcasts monitored since the Moon Monolith was dug up.

The Midnight Sky may be marketed as a film with spaceships in it, but it is more in the mood of works like Another Earth, Coherence, and (in my opinion) Primer – we’re really in the world of Magic Realist fiction, in which the sciencey premise is not to be thought about too much, if at all. We start with what looks like a sci-fi framing: lone scientist at a remote installation in the future (“BARBEAU OBSERVATORY…. FEBRUARY 2049…. 3 WEEKS AFTER THE EVENT”). We are never told details of The Event, and the one time that Augustine is explaining it on the comms link to the astronauts the unstable link cuts out his words.

I don’t know whether it is officially revealed, and it is not stated explicitly in the film, but I think a pretty obvious interpretation of the story is that “the Event” was Augustine’s death from cancer, and that the emptying universe he is witnessing is simply a final fever dream in his own purgatory, in which fictional details are already creeping in to his memories. As with 2001 we have a manned space mission to Jupiter, but the premise is some nonsense about “a previously unknown moon K-23” that is apparently big enough for humans to walk around on and with an active core. We are not told that it was a lone planet that drifted in to our solar system and was captured by Jupiter, like the central mystery in Fifth Planet. So we are to suppose it has been hiding in plain sight of our astronomers, in amongst the other large moons whose gravitational effects would be the cause of its core activity. That’s not plausible, and it’s not even plausible that it hasn’t been assigned a proper name by the time a space mission is heading out to it.

There are several other problems with the details of the Aether space mission (“meteor storms” are still portrayed as clouds of rubble, like the “asteroid belt” in The Empire Strikes Back, though the reality would be far more diffuse), but the biggest problem is the syrupy TV movie soundtrack that always signals when something Emotional is going to happen. There is one seeming homage to Kubrick, but in reverse: the classic jump-cut transformation of the flying bone into a spaceship, is now a slow merge of the spaceship into Augustine’s figure trekking across the landscape:

2001 (1)
2001 (2)
Midnight Sky (1)
Midnight Sky (2)
Midnight Sky (3)

This fits an interpretation that the space mission, and the world it was sent to, and “the Event” that frustrated its return, are in fact just phantoms haunting this landscape of a lonely old man at the end of his life, realising he’s made a wilderness of his inner space whilst looking at outer space. All very trite and overlong, which is a pity as some good work was done on making the spaceship sequences as detailed and exciting as they could ever be.

If you want a brilliant science-fiction film made in 2020, then there’s only 1 choice: Little Joe, which has no spaceships but a big journey around the philosophy of biology and psychology and the politics of real science.

The ultimate lesson here is: if you can’t get Kubrick, then get Hawkwind.

Space is dark, it is so endless
When you’re lost it’s so relentless
It is so big, it is so small
Why does man try to act so tall?

Is this the reason deep in our minds?

It does not feel, it does not die
Space is neither truth nor lies
Into the void we have to travel
To find a clue which will unravel

Is this the reason deep in our minds?

The secret lies with our tomorrow
In each of us is a hidden sorrow
Path goes onwards through the night
Beyond the realms of ancient light

Is this the reason deep in our minds?

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