REVIEW: “The Midnight Sky” (2020)

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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.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

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.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

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

4-stars

19 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Midnight Sky” (2020)

  1. Oh cool, it has its Netflix premier on my birthday! Yay!! Definitely will be taking this one in. I’m hit and miss with Clooney. I love how you still defend The Monuments Men — good for you, man. The guy is always so affable I think I gotta go back and take another look at that movie. One of my gripes was that it didn’t make the best use out of its cast. Wondering if that might be an issue I have with this one, too.

    • I see why it may have pushed some people away. It has a slight light-hearted flavor in the same vein as The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. I kinda went for that nostalgic vibe where others didn’t.

    • This is a good one. Unfortunately too many people are focused on comparing it to other films rather than looking deeper into what Clooney is doing. There’s a lot to like about it.

    • Mostly mixed for sure. It seems like it’s being compared to other films more than being looked at as its own movie. I understand that approach but I do think there is more to the movie than what’s on the surface.

  2. I value your opinion, but I think this one will not be for me. But, my respect for Clooney has grown over the years and reading your great review made me really want to read the book “Good Morning, Midnight”. It promises to be something really good!

    • Thanks for reading! I can see it not being for everyone. But like you I’m really interested in buying the book. Sounds like it could be a fascinating read.

  3. I watched it last night and thought it was good, but more than a few things were easy guesses. For example I knew someone was going to parish during the space walk. It has been so cliche in movies and they set it up by them being off course. I know they tried to play it down with the song “Sweet Caroline” but it drug on and walla accident and someone paid the price for fixing the comms and radar.

    I wished they would have touched more on if he was imagining he was with his daughter, but that entire journey to the weather station has me like ok well she saved the gun. I do not think the movie needed to add a cliff hanger like that, maybe I am missing something?

    • I guess I was more into the filmmaking during the spacewalk than the actual consequences. They kind of channeled what was going to happen before they left the ship, but I thought the way it played out was pretty spectacular.

      As for the other, I really liked the way they handled it. And there are a little clues during their journey across the tundra that are especially impressive after a second viewing.

  4. Finally checked this one out. Im always up for an end of world type movie. I knew going in this was not an action-packed affair but more of a character-driven movie. But having said that, I found this movie dreadfully boring. It just literally did nothing for me at all. The characters didn’t connect with me and I’ll be honest, I’ve always found Clooney real hit or miss with me and this one was a huge miss. The story I thought was pretty pedestrian and predictable. Solid special effects but beyond that, about all I can say. Out of a 5 rating, this would only get a 2 from me. I had high hopes for this and it just didn’t live up to what I was hoping for.

    • Ouch. But all fair points. This one lives or dies on its ability to sell you on its deeper themes. I really connected with it that way which made it easy to overlook some of its bumps in the road.

      • That was the key, feeling the connection. Plus I went in with high hopes from the trailer and when that happens, Im a little more critical. Fair review you gave and I can understand why others would like it more. Keep up the excellent work, I’ve got at least 5 people reading your reviews regularly now. They are all really enjoying your insights.

      • Oh man, that means a lot. Thank you. I hope I do the films justice. For all the downs of 2020, I was pretty blessed on this site. I was accepted into two critics organizations which gave me access to more movies which I’ve tried to cover the best I could. It’s humbling to hear that people enjoy it.

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