In 2049, an unspecified ‘event’ – we get hints at both war and climate catastrophe – means that all life on Earth is doomed within weeks … but terminally-ill beardo boffin Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) opts to stay at an arctic base when everyone else departs to die at home, because a) he has no apparent life to speak of, with flashbacks to a love interest telling him off about it and b) he wants to get in touch with the Aether, a spaceship that has just scouted a habitable planet-like Jupiter moon and is on the home journey expecting better news than he has to offer about the colonisation project.
Scripted by Mark L. Smith, from a novel (Good Morning, Midnight) by Lily Brooks-Dalton, this engages Clooney not only as a shaggy star – he spends much of the film trudging across shaky ice with a silent child he calls Iris (Caoilinn Springall) – but as director, and further develops his occasional interest in space-set science fiction (cf: Solaris, Gravity) … though this follows Contact, Interstellar and Ad Astra by promising to tackle big sciency subjects, only to turn out to be yet another film which can’t conceive of anything more important than Daddy Abandonment Issues even in a scenario where literally the fate of the human race is on the table. On the Aether, pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones) is ready to receive that broken-up call from an otherwise silent Earth while her crewmates – David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler – work on their own miniature arcs and issues and we get regular crises involving asteroids, EVA sub-missions, medical emergencies (blood bubbles in zero gee) and the like, just to delay the moment when the two halves of the story have to talk with each other, whereupon the actual details are coyly withheld.
It’s a big, solemn space opera in a tradition that seems to have sprung up lately (Contact is an outlier) – and I still respond to big pretty images of complicated, fragile space vehicles making progress through the void, with occasional white-knuckle near-disasters. I’ll leave it to my hard science fiction pals to seethe in fury at the fudging of a lot of big issues, and groan instead over the well-played but rote emotional stuff involving actual and surrogate father-daughter bonding taking primacy while the entire rest of the human race get royally killed off – this sort of ‘my family first and fuck the rest of you’ attitude often gets put forward in movies as if it were admirable (see a couple of Dwayne Johnson disaster movies) rather than something liable to have realworld disastrous consequences on a par with whatever it is that ended the world in this set-up.
NB: another recent trend – cf: The Martian, Guardians of the Galaxy – is to have futuristic space action accompanied by golden oldie music. Here, the crew of a spaceship in 2049 do a cheery singalong to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline (a chart-topper in 1969). This is about as credible as astronauts today playing the Andrews Sisters while dodging asteroids. Crusty old gits with record collections get to make movies so we’re stuck with this trope and as a fully paid-up crusty old git, I vaguely approve while recognising the laziness – I can’t imagine anything more depressing than Guardians of the Galaxy with a most-downloaded-tracks-of-2017 soundtrack.
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