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We Live in Disastrous Times. Why Can’t Disaster Movies Evolve?

Everyone on Earth is dead, or will be soon. We don’t know exactly what happened — fallout from a nuclear catastrophe? — but whatever it was …

Everyone on Earth is dead, or will be soon. We don’t know exactly what happened — fallout from a nuclear catastrophe? — but whatever it was, it’s still spreading, still killing people, not going away. Some survivors are hiding underground, but they can’t last long. There seem to be a few people left aboveground, near the planet’s poles, but it’s clear that whatever came for everyone else is also coming for them. We are doomed — all of us, that is, apart from the five astronauts aboard Aether, a spaceship en route back to Earth after scouting a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter.

So begins “The Midnight Sky,” George Clooney’s latest outing as a director and a star — a worldwide Netflix hit and a telling artifact of our relationship with the idea of disaster. As Aether approaches Earth, the astronauts are faced with a choice. Those who board one of the ship’s landing crafts — in hopes, say, of rushing to the side of still-living loved ones — will be returning to Earth to die there. Those who stay in space will remain for the rest of their lives.

In an emotionally climactic scene, one crew member follows another to an equipment locker to confess his decision. But the two don’t discuss what’s happening on Earth, or why, or what it would mean to strand themselves in space. Instead, they grow philosophical about life. “I’ve been thinking,” the crew member says, his eyes moistening. “Been thinking a lot about time, and how it gets used, and why. Why one person lives a lifetime and another only gets a few years.”

At first, the vague catastrophe of “The Midnight Sky” feels like a neat tweak to the usual disaster-movie formulas, which lavish attention on the apocalypse itself: Either we follow its slow, terrible progress through the first act, or we see it parceled out in ominous flashbacks. These days, it seems, those mechanics can be skipped over. It’s already all too easy to imagine how the end of the world might work. Every day, news and government reports remind us that we are living through a planetary crisis, bringing new projections of worse pandemics, rolling climate shocks, mass migrations that shatter our political systems. “The Midnight Sky” takes advantage of our dread-saturated imagination to skip the disaster altogether and cut straight to the pressure it puts on individual characters.

But as the equipment-locker scene makes clear, this movie is more traditional than it seems. The story, in the end, uses the same dramatic conceit as just about every other disaster movie: The decimation of Earth becomes a backdrop that lends weight to the choices of a few individuals, which are meant to point to bigger truths about humanity. Two work buddies speculating about time and mortality sounds like a Samuel Beckett play, but two space explorers talking about time and mortality after the apocalypse, plus a few action scenes, sounds like Netflix gold. Rushing past the disaster doesn’t change the equation so much as boil it down into a purer version of itself — and, in doing so, reveal its fundamental inadequacies.

Most disaster movies aren’t much interested in disasters in and of themselves. The disaster sparks the action and makes its resolution feel momentous, but when it comes to considering where it came from — why it unfolds one way and not another — things tend to get hazy. We see, perhaps, a montage of news reports, or a beaker taking a sinister spill in a lab somewhere. The disaster always seems to be attributed not to any specific cause, but to something nebulous and universal: “human nature,” hubris, evil business moguls. We’re offered just enough explanation to stop us from asking questions.

By opting for maximum disaster briskness, though, “The Midnight Sky” actually makes it harder than usual to ignore those pesky questions. What human history underpinned the mysterious Big Bad Thing that killed everyone? What collective arrangements, decisions and failures underpinned the apocalypse, and how did they dictate how it played out? I found myself dwelling on those underground shelters: Who was in them? Who was shut out? Why, exactly? There is one brief mention of a “colony flight” that may or may not have managed to launch, carrying settlers into space. If it did, who was on board, and who watched it soar away?

Once upon a time these details might have felt like distracting trivialities. But questions of this sort are among the most pressing facing humanity today. We are not living through a Big Bad Apocalyptic Thing; we are staring down a whole planetary patchwork of bad stuff that threatens death and suffering on a sweeping scale. It’s possible that the very idea of the discrete, one-shot “apocalypse” should be retired; it risks fixing our imagination on a definitive break that will never come, instead of the tangled moral drama of what needs to happen now. How are we preparing, as a species and a planet, for the hardships of the future? Will these preparations do more for some people than others? What hope do we have of modifying them for the better?

By starting with Earth’s fate already settled, “The Midnight Sky” gives itself a pass on this line of inquiry, and an excuse to dwell instead in the pathos of small moments of loss and acceptance. It reminded me, discomfitingly, of figures like Elon Musk, who often seem more interested in triumphant dreams of life in space than in any effort to help address the earthbound problems that would send us there in the first place. Colonizing space feels exciting: a new life under a new sky, free from the entanglements of the past. Dealing with Earth’s problems involves something we’re not accustomed to seeing as romantic: accounting for other people’s basic needs on a global scale.

If our planetary crises were the same as conflicts negotiated between small groups of individuals, they would be much more straightforward to resolve. But they’re not. Could we start telling disaster stories that reflect this fact, and grapple with it? The most powerful recent example comes not from film but from literature: Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “The Ministry for the Future,” which cuts between — to give just a partial list — scenes of climate disaster, government and financial bureaucracy, geoengineering experiments, street protests, refugee camps and eco-terrorism. Each strand takes meaning not just from the experiences of its characters but also from the reader’s awareness of their deep interconnections.

Until we have more disaster tales like this, the genre will only ever function as a smudged, distorted mirror for humanity. “The Midnight Sky” is suffused from the start with a distinctly current dread about our missteps, but it refuses to face the dilemmas those missteps now force upon us, even as the need to do so becomes more pressing by the day.

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