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THE MIDNIGHT SKY – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Midnight Sky is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama directed by George Clooney, adapted from the novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Clooney himself stars as Augustine Lofthouse, a brilliant NASA scientist who has been searching for habitable planets elsewhere in the universe that humans could colonize. In the year 2049 an unidentified cataclysmic event wipes out most of the Earth’s population; knowing that he is terminally ill, Augustine volunteers to remain behind at an isolated communications base in the Arctic, where he attempts to contact the crew aboard the spacecraft Aether, who are returning to Earth after a successful voyage to a habitable moon orbiting Jupiter, with the intention of telling them not to come back. However, Lofthouse is having trouble successfully contacting the ship, and fears that all may be lost – until he finds a young girl living in the communications base, having apparently been left behind by her family. Inspired by the girl to renew his efforts to make contact, Lofthouse and the girl set out across the icy wastes of the Arctic, heading towards a different radio base, despite the numerous dangers that lie in their path. The film co-stars Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, and Kyle Chandler as the crew of the spacecraft, and was intended to be released in theaters in the fall of 2020 but – of course – was pushed to Netflix instead, yet another cinematic victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film is an interesting mix of hard science, existential philosophy, and intense survival action, but many have criticized the film for unfolding at an unnecessarily languid pace, for its grim tone and downbeat ending, as well as for the way it cribs plot points and ideas from other movies (notably Gravity), but I actually quite liked it. It felt like poetry to me in places, especially when Clooney’s balletic camera work is moving around the characters, and exploring the confines of their environments. The score for The Midnight Sky is by Alexandre Desplat, who also scored Clooney’s last three films as a director, The Ides of March in 2011, The Monuments Men in 2014, and Suburbicon in 2017. It was a quiet 2020 for the Frenchman, who usually averages three or four scores a year; The Midnight Sky was his only released work, although his score for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is essentially finished and awaiting release later in 2021.

Desplat’s music has, in the past, often been criticized for being cold and emotionless, an argument which I have vehemently disputed. However, on The Midnight Sky, these descriptors might actually be somewhat apt, as Desplat’s music does tend to err on the side of understated caution. Considering that the film takes place in two of the coldest places imaginable – the North Pole, and outer space – it stands to reason that some of Desplat’s music might reflect that. In addition, the emotionlessness is perfectly attuned to the character of Lofthouse, who lives in self-imposed isolation and essentially is waiting for his own death – either from his terminal illness, or from the fallout from the apocalypse. But, as the score develops and wanders towards its conclusion, Desplat gradually injects one significant emotional concept: hope. The hope provided by the scared little girl who inspires Lofthouse to venture out into the cold to help save the last vestiges of humanity. The hope felt by the crew of the Aether, who have successfully identified a new home for the survivors of the apocalypse. And the hope of new life – new birth – that comes with the fact that Felicity Jones’s character is pregnant.

The score is essentially split into four stylistic approaches, all of which follow a similar instrumental pattern – soft orchestra, subtle electronics – but are identifiably distinct from each other. The first is the music that accompanies Lofthouse’s life at the Arctic communications base, which is centered around the score’s understated recurring main theme, and is elegant, calm, and quite beautiful despite its melancholy tone. It first appears in the opening cue, “The Midnight Sky,” and then later in tracks like “Evacuation” and the darker and more treacherous-sounding “Dead Birds”. “Evacuation” is especially imbued with a sense of tragedy, as the last of Lofthouse’s colleagues retreat from the Arctic to the strains of Desplat’s tortured strings and grating synth pulses

This music for Lofthouse bleeds directly into the music that represents the influence that Iris, the little girl, has on him, and the unlikely relationship that develops between them. The main theme occasionally features in these cues, but for the most part they are standalone pieces of elegant, child-like wonder, often featuring excellent instrumental performances. “Iris in the Stars” is a score standout, a gorgeous piano solo which shimmers and glows with gentle affection as the strings surround it with a warm cascade of hopefulness, and which eventually melts into an equally stunning cello variation performed by soloist Rebecca Gulliver. The same theme returns later in the lovely “A Child,” while “Peas Battle” is a delightful little piece for prancing strings and a novelty glockenspiel that illustrates the deepening bond between Lofthouse and Iris.

Meanwhile, the music that follows the crew of the Aether on the journey home is more rhythmic and a little more energetic, and often features the undulating woodwind textures that Desplat likes so much. “Aether Spaceship” is pretty, full of dancing flute lines offset with more reflective string chords, while the subtle electronics have the effect of insinuating the beauty of space, with its twinkling stars and endless possibilities. I especially like the way the brass asserts itself towards the end of the cue, offering a touch of heroism. The determined-sounding “Mission” is a combination of elegant piano phrases underpinned with moody, sometimes aggressive electronic pulses and writing for electric guitar, some of which reminds me of parts of scores like Birth and Firewall, and which clearly speaks to the seriousness of the Aether’s task. Again, the brass writing during the finale is superb.

“Sullivan’s Nightmare” is a forceful and thrilling piece of action music that underscores a dream sequence where Sully is left behind on Jupiter’s moon by her ship; the anguished, throbbing sequence for brass and percussion is brilliant, capturing her sense of frightened desperation perfectly. This is counterbalanced by the inviting, if still slightly abstract, textures in “Families & Friends,” which Desplat uses to illustrate the hopes and dreams the crew of the Aether have of reuniting with their loved ones at home. “In the Milky Way” revisits some of the hesitant textures heard in the “Aether Spaceship” cue, and is just as beautiful, again presenting an appropriately wondrous reflection of the vast splendor of the galaxy, while “Changing Route” is imbued with a sense of relief and optimism, even a little piano and string romance, and is full of waves of classical harmony that wash over you like the warm sun.

Several exciting action sequences underscore the dangerous circumstances that Lofthouse and Iris face on their journey across the ice, and the dangerous events that the crew of the Aether must overcome in order to return home. “Wolves Attack” is a cacophony of stabbing strings and harsh, grating electronic textures. “First Alert” is a headlong rush of fast-paced electronic pulses and clattering percussion. “Crashed Plane” is stark and eerie, but eventually melts away into a hauntingly effective statement of the main theme to accompany a key moment of tragic mercy. “The Ice Breaks” returns to the sounds heard in “First Alert” with even more crushing intensity, bringing sharp brass calls, vivid string ostinatos, and harsh dissonance into the mix; some of the writing here recalls Desplat’s most intense work on Harry Potter, and parts of Valerian, which make it by far the standout action moment in the score.

Meanwhile, up in space, “Asteroids Rain” hammers relentlessly with throbbing percussion, string ostinatos, and wonderfully dissonant low brass hits, echoing the meteors that slam into the Aether and damage its antenna. The subsequent “Blood Drops” underscores a tragic death with a startlingly frenetic sequence of intense action that pits complicated percussion rhythms and almost dance-like electronic beats against a whining, intense orchestral section – listen to those brass triplets! – before concluding with a desperately sad solo piano finale, full of grief and loss. This leads into the heartbreakingly emotional “Mourning,” which sees Desplat at his moving, tender best.

Two cues towards the end of the score really showcase the musical shift from loneliness and alienation towards hope and redemption. “Survivors” gradually moves from sorrow and anger to something quite emotionally powerful; the writing for cello is notably evocative, especially when it performs a lamenting new theme intended to act as a requiem for the Earth and the fate of its unsuccessful gatekeepers. The first third of the subsequent “Is There Hope?” is an 8-minute exploration of different aspects of the main theme, and as it develops it builds to present perhaps the most uplifting statement in the entire score, a magical and endearing refrain for the full orchestra featuring some especially lithe woodwind accents. The final two thirds of the cue are a little more circumspect, offering fragments of the theme set against tense electronics, a belligerent action sequence, and then some quite spartan writing for piano and cello.

The theme from “Survivors” returns in “There Is Nowhere,” which plumbs the depths of beautiful despair through its poignant cello writing, before the finale in “A New Life Ahead” revisits the main theme one last time, and slowly emerges into a statement that is quiet, elegant, gently moving, and at times feels profound. The brightness of the trumpets, and the sweep in the strings, offers a sense of resolution to everything that has preceded it, and ends the score on a positive note.

The Midnight Sky is not a happy film, and therefore it is not a happy score. There are times here where Alexandre Desplat is scoring from the bleakest possible place, combining orchestral and electronic textures in a way that is beautiful, but tinged with bitterness, regret, and no small part of desperation. There are moments of cold and stark alienation, fear-based action, and eventually tragedy. But there is just something about the contemplative nature of the score, and the way it seeks to overcome all the obstacles, that is enormously appealing to me. The main theme is lovely, the music that illustrates the relationship between Lofthouse and Iris is delightful, and the final feeling of hopefulness is exquisite. I fear that The Midnight Sky won’t appeal to anyone who doesn’t appreciate the more introspective side of Desplat, but this is me we’re talking about, so of course I appreciate it enormously.

Buy the Midnight Sky soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Midnight Sky (3:31)
  • Aether Spaceship (3:33)
  • Mission (4:24)
  • Sullivan’s Nightmare (2:09)
  • Iris in the Stars (4:32)
  • Augustine’s Redemption (2:54)
  • Evacuation (2:48)
  • Wolves Attack (2:06)
  • Families & Friends (2:32)
  • In the Milky Way (2:55)
  • A Child (1:57)
  • Peas Battle (3:22)
  • First Alert (3:54)
  • Dead Birds (1:10)
  • Crashed Plane (5:22)
  • The Ice Breaks (3:09)
  • Visual on Earth (3:00)
  • Survivors (3:11)
  • Is There Hope? (7:43)
  • Changing Route (3:55)
  • Asteroids Rain (2:08)
  • Blood Drops (5:33)
  • Mourning (4:00)
  • There Is Nowhere (2:13)
  • A Ride Home (1:44)
  • A New Life Ahead (3:03)

Running Time: 86 minutes 59 seconds

ABKCO Records (2020)

Music composed by Alexandre Desplat. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Jean-Pascal Beintus and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Michael Alexander and Peter Clarke. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat and Dominique Lemonnier.

  1. January 5, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    I enjoyed the score much more than I did the movie.

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