George Clooney is so omnipresent in Hollywood these days I’m beginning to think he’s some sort of Oprah-ordained deity. Having been Hollywood’s go-to male lead for over two decades, he’s increasingly turning his hand to directing.
And it turns out he’s not half bad at it either. His latest release on Netflix The Midnight Sky sees him tackle the harsh conditions of the Arctic, both as the film’s star and as its director. Released on Christmas Eve, this apocalyptic tale about global catastrophe and missed opportunity is perhaps not quite the festive balm we were looking for to take our minds off the pandemic, but there we go. If 2020 hasn’t given us a taste for the existential then nothing will.
The film’s chilly setting takes centre stage in The Midnight Sky as Clooney’s explorer – the last man left on an abandoned arctic outpost – attempts to deliver a warning to a crew of astronauts about a global catastrophe that has happened during their absence. It’s a task that pushes his sanity to the brink.
But does Clooney pull the setting off? Who better to ask than polar explorer Alex Hibbert who has skied further on an unsupported Arctic journey than any other person in history. When it comes to polar survival, Hibbert has seen it all. He even completed the final week of his 1374-mile journey in 2008 on almost no food. So let’s find out what he makes of Clooney’s survival skills in The Midnight Sky:
The explorer Augustine comes up with a number of coping mechanisms for being alone in the arctic – some of which we won’t reveal here. How do you cope being isolated in such a hostile environment?
‘I’m not sure Augustine’s mechanisms are too effective! Although if faced with impending annihilation, he could perhaps be forgiven his idiosyncrasies,’ says Hibbert. ‘As for mental resilience, I never feel a sense of despair when I’m on an expedition because I’m there voluntarily.’
But remote expeditions can still pose a challenge. What does he do to keep his mind occupied?
‘On long, boring hauling slogs, mental games to play between each hour’s ski session can help break it up. Otherwise, audiobooks are the ticket. But, I expect to come home to normality – Augustine knows there’s only dystopia or death.’
Wasn’t Augustine a little under dressed for sub-zero temperatures and blizzards?
‘The film needed a cold weather expert here,’ says Alex, who has plenty of notes for Clooney: ‘There were lots of dodgy moments, from endlessly uncovered heads and noses, to a remarkably easy recovery from prolonged immersion in winter seawater. If you become damp through sweat or contact with water, you’re in a mess. Also, movies still can’t get breath vapour right. Every breath outside would have produced clouds of vapour. You either need good CGI, or to film in the cold (think The Revenant).’
The Midnight Sky juxtaposes the hostility and isolation of the arctic with life on a space station – do you think there’s much crossover between the mindsets of astronauts and explorers?
‘This comparison is regularly made, and it’s tough to validate as few have experienced both to the fullest extent,’ says Alex. ‘In terms of being kind to equipment you can’t afford to break, coping with limited resources and company, there are clearly similarities. However, rescue in the event of emergency is nigh on impossible in space. In the polar regions it could be a day, or a week away – you just need to hold on that long. I suspect both will demand a certain mindset – creative, driven, and ready to lose everything for their passion.’
The Midnight Sky sees Augustine grabbing fifty winks in everything from an ice cave to a tent to an abandoned weather station. How do you sleep whilst on an expedition?
‘There’s no question Augustine would have died,’ Alex tells me. ‘He wouldn’t survive sleeping in those conditions in that season without sleeping bags and shelter.’
So how do you get a good night’s kip? ‘Sleeping routines on expeditions are highly complex if you want to avoid six hours of shivering; from evening meals, to tent vapour venting, to sleeping ‘systems’ of pads, air voids and sleeping bags and sacrificial overbags.’
Tips to drop off? None needed: ‘You’re knackered, so as long as your core is warm you’ll drift off immediately, unless the wind outside sounds like a polar bear approaching.’
Augustine is rarely seen outside without his trusty rifle in hand. What wildlife is there in the arctic? Is it necessary to be armed?
‘It’s necessary to be armed anywhere not high on an icecap, where nothing lives. Whilst most wildlife will leave you alone – whether polar bears, walrus, wolves, muskox – all you need is one bad encounter with a hungry or injured animal and you’ll need protection.’ Ah, so on this front, Clooney gets it right. Not quite, according to Alex: ‘Augustine did stub his rifle awfully a few times, meaning the muzzle would be jammed with snow!’
What are arctic storms like? How do you find your way in a blizzard?
‘Travel in a full blizzard (or whiteout) is usually a bad idea unless you’re on a large icecap plateau and can just walk or ski on a compass bearing. However, Augustine was desperate and without shelter, so he did his best. You don’t really find your way in a blizzard unless you have a GPS, or a good map and compass with the skill to use them. You don’t just stumble upon your destination, as Augustine does.’
One of the film’s most dramatic scenes involves a dreamlike narrow escape from thin ice – have you ever fallen through the ice? What do you do?
‘I haven’t by accident (only on purpose for filming), but I’ve been very close to a friend who has. It wasn’t too clear in the film whether Clooney’s character fell through sea or lake ice (I presume the former) but often you’ll have a serious current to deal with. It’s common for people to be pulled under and lost under the ice. Also, the extreme shock and cold really wasn’t accurately portrayed. There’s no way he would have had the motor control or presence of mind to swim down after a sinking skidoo.’ Ah, but he’s George Clooney, isn’t he?
The film makes much of the personal sacrifices Augustine made in his relationships in order to pursue his ambitions, putting his solitary pursuit above family. Is this accurate? How single-minded do you have to be as an explorer?
‘When it comes to explorers, there’s no one personality type,’ says Alex. ‘In the past, polar expeditions (which were usually both exploratory and scientific) could last years, and this demanded a great deal of both them, and their families back home. Some behaved well – others less so. Peary fathered a child with a 14-year old Inuit girl, and Shackleton most likely refused to abandon the ill-fated Endurance expedition as he was afraid of facing the music back home following his affair. These sorts of endeavours attract extreme personalities, but not all the same. Certainly not the lazy.’
With a trip to Greenland already planned for 2021, no one could accuse Hibbert of being that.
The Midnight Sky is available to watch on Netflix from the 24th December. Follow Alex’s polar adventures on Twitter and Instagram: @alexhibbert