No one can doubt George Clooney’s celebrity status nor can they reasonably throw dirt at his work in front of the camera. A quick scan of the Oscar winner’s acting credits shows a career many would envy. It’s when you mention his directing that things get a little shaky. He has hit his mark a few times namely with “Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Monuments Men” (that’s right, I’m an actual defender of that movie. Nice to meet you.). But his misfires have been pretty pronounced with “Leatherheads” and the abysmal “Suburbicon” instantly coming to mind.
His latest film “The Midnight Sky” sees Clooney as both lead actor and director, his first dual-duty role since 2014. The story is adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel “Good Morning, Midnight”. It’s an interesting choice for director Clooney, bigger in scale and more ambitious￼ than anything he has helmed before. Here he has made a movie that wears its inspirations on its sleeve which may push away demanding viewers hungry for something completely original. But “The Midnight Sky” is no stale uninspired rehash and reducing it to such ignores the film’s more personal aims.
This moody dystopian drama is set in 2049, three weeks after an unspecified global catastrophe (referred to only as “the event”) caused deadly levels of radiation to begin spreading across the earth’s surface. Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a renowned astrophysicist and the last remaining soul at the Barbeau Observatory deep in the Arctic Circle. His colleagues and their families have evacuated, heading south to hole up in underground safehouses. But Augustine stayed behind, unconvinced that leaving was the best course of action and content to live his last days alone with his terminal illness.
Augustine passes his time monitoring the radiation’s rapid spread and attempting to establish communication with the rest of the world. The thick-bearded, gravelly-voiced Clooney gives one of the best performances of his career portraying a somber tormented soul wrestling with feelings of deep-rooted regret (three short but well-handled flashbacks reveal a squandered relationship, the source of his melancholy). He’s the embodiment of loneliness, a man self-condemned and resigned to his fate. But then two unexpected twists change his course.
First he notices the crew of the planet’s last active space mission Operation Aether are returning to earth following a survey mission to a potentially habitable moon. If Augustine doesn’t re-establish contact with the unaware space station and warn them of the earth’s status the five-person crew will be arriving to their own deaths. Second he discovers a little girl named Iris (bright-eyed newcomer Caoilinn Springall) left behind during the evacuation. It sets up the well-worn father-figure/daughter-figure dynamic that actually works thanks to Clooney’s wounded sincerity and Springall’s quiet and unadorned presence.
Meanwhile aboard the Aether the crew carries on their daily duties despite growing concerns about losing contact with earth. The diverse and talented group of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, and Tiffany Boone make up the team of home-sick scientists, some more fleshed out than others but each believable in their role. The visual effects pop off the screen from the imaginative ship design to the simple but foreboding way the movie contrasts the darkness of space with the blinding white of the Arctic tundra. And then there’s the film’s biggest set piece, a stunning spacewalk to repair a communications array that clearly borrows from “Gravity” but packs its own quiet white-knuckled intensity. There is a musical number to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” that I could have done without but be that as it may.
The story jumps back-and-forth between the Aether‘s crew pushing through unforeseen dangers and Augustine setting out with Iris across the frozen wasteland to a remote weather station with a stronger antenna. It sounds action-packed, something akin to summer blockbuster material. But while it has its genre moments, this is a much different film. At its core “The Midnight Sky” is reflective and tragic, even poetic; a bleak meditation on humanity’s last days. Some are sure to push back on Clooney’s unrushed approach, but it’s exactly what this type of story needs. Even DP Martin Ruhe’s extraordinary cinematography and Alexander Desplat’s elegant yet aching score support the film’s contemplative framing.
One of the biggest mistakes you could make with a movie like “The Midnight Sky” is falling into the comparison trap. Sure, if you look for it you can see a few story beats from “Interstellar”, a set piece inspired by “Gravity”, and the occasional ruminative rhythm of “Ad Astra”. At times you may be reminded of “The Martian”, “Moon”, “2001”, and “Arrival”. In other words it does what so many sci-fi movies do at this stage in the genre’s history – it embraces its inspirations. But it also has its own story to tell about loss, love and the yearning for what we leave behind.
“The Midnight Sky” is destined to be a divisive movie. For some it will be emotionally cathartic and fitting for a year like 2020. Others will find it to be shallow, derivative and lacking its own identity. For me its issues are considerably smaller. It splits so much time between earth and space that some of its characters get shortchanged.￼ And as a result some of the big emotional moments don’t quite have the punch they should. But thankfully “The Midnight Sky” doesn’t hinge on a scene or two. And I like the fact that George Clooney, both the actor and director, sticks to his vision while tipping his hat to many of his important influences. “The Midnight Sky” is now showing in select theaters and will premiere on Netflix December 23rd.
VERDICT – 4 STARS