December 22, 2020 – Although this end-of-times film has all the trappings of pseudoscience fiction, it is really more of a poetic fantasy about interpersonal relationships, exploration, and the will to survive.
The film, directed by, and starring George Clooney (“Tomorrowland”) takes place in the future when some unspecified catastrophe has wiped out all life on earth, except for a few people in the polar regions, and those hiding underground. Some kind of airborne sickness has wiped out everything else.
Clooney stars as Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist who discovered a habitable moon called K-23, orbiting Jupiter. Dying of cancer, Augustine stays behind at an otherwise abandoned polar research station in hopes of contacting the deep space probe Æther which is returning from exploring K-23.
The crew of Æther consists of Commander Adewole (played by David Oyelowo of “Lee Daniels' The Butler”) pilot Tom Mitchell (Kyle Chandler of “First Man”) navigator Sanchez (Demián Bichir of “The Hateful Eight”) pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones of “The Aeronauts” and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone of “The Following”).
The crew has been gone from earth for eight years, and is anxious to return home, especially those who have close family members on earth. The crew is unaware of the disaster which has wiped out almost all life on earth.
Augustine hopes to contact the crew of Æther in order to offer them a chance to survive. He has calculated an orbit that will swing the ship around earth to head it back to K-23 where the crew might have a chance to survive. There is no chance of survival on earth.
Augustine is unable to contact Æther because the broadcast facility where he is doesn't have enough transmission power. He decides to make a dangerous journey by snowmobile to another, more powerful transmitter, along with a young mute girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who was evidently left behind somehow when the astronomical facility was evacuated.
Æther's flight back to earth is a disaster. A series of unlikely mishaps and crew decisions wipes out most of the crew. Augustine's snowmobile trip is also a disaster, but he just barely manages to complete his journey. Despite all the disasters, the movie is not entirely negative, but it does move rather slowly along its mostly sad arc.
There is an element of fantasy in the journey of Augustine and Iris. The science is largely a joke. There are no large undiscovered moons, like K-23, orbiting Jupiter because two NASA space probes have orbited Jupiter for years and we'd have spotted a big moon (with an oxygen atomosphere and temperate climate) by now. Jupiter has 79 known moons, most of them quite small, although there are probably hundreds more, any undiscovered ones are going to be small, as well.
The movie plot also depends on Æther being out of radio contact with earth for years at a time. In reality, earth is still in contact with the Voyager probes after more than 40 years, despite the probe having a radio power of only 23 watts, and it is outside the solar system, billions of miles farther from earth than Jupiter. The whole disaster scenario with Æther depends on some highly improbable events, including the craft quickly getting so far off course that the crew lacks inadequate charts for avoiding objects in space on their new route home.
This movie is not really about science, though, despite the very elaborate spaceship sets. The amalgamation of science fiction and whimsical fantasy elements in this story reminds me of some of Ray Bradbury's work (“The Martian Chronicles”) but the combination of elements doesn't quite hold together as well as Bradbury's stories do.
The performances are quite good by Clooney and his whole crew. The elaborate set designs and art design of the film are first rate. You can see the money that went into this film. The pace of the film is slow, the tone is sombre and there are no real surprises in the plot, which telegraphs its punches, but it does pack an emotional punch. This film rates a C+.
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