Principal Cast : George Clooney, Felicity Jones, Caoilinn Springall, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor.
Synopsis: This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
One part survivalist story, another part an examination on what it means to be human, actor-director George Clooney breaks his exile from the cinema landscape with this quietly unimpressive sci-fi drama that meanders more than it means. Space-set films have been relatively decent in the last several years – see Interstellar, Gravity, Ad Astra, The Martian – and Clooney’s work here attempts to… er, gravitate towards those kinds of spectacle-driven event films, only with a curiously quieter demeanour and an altogether bizarre character twist in the third act. The Midnight Sky trades off Old Man Clooney more than Handsome Hunk Clooney to its detriment, and the film’s glacial pacing will put off everyone else; it’s a film of meditative contemplation and fraught human trauma mixed with a cosmic convenience that’s a little hard to overcome.
Clooney plays terminally ill astrophysicist Augustine Lofthouse, a man we discover once allowed his work to shatter his family life (a young Lofthouse is portrayed by Ethan Peck in flashback) before finding his way to a research and space exploration outpost in the Antarctic. When a global catastrophe wipes out almost the entirety of human civilisation, leaving only Lofthouse and a mysterious young girl (Caoilinn Springall) at the station after a mass evacuation, the scientist attempts to make contact with the spacecraft Aether, which is coming to the end of its long return journey from Jupiter’s moonbase K-23. The Aether is manned by a small crew, led by Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), his pregnant partner Dr Iris Sullivan (Felicity Jones), pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), and mission specialists Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and Maya (Riffany Boone). As the Aether approaches a decimated Earth, Lofthouse struggles to find a communication array powerful enough to make contact, only to find that when he does it will bring him a terrific personal cost.
From a screenplay by Mark L Smith (The Revenant, Overlord), Clooney directs the film with a measured, assured style and tone. Midnight Sky mixes thematic elements of other notable films, including The Thing, Gravity, Cast Away and The Martian, with a tone similar to the films of Terrence Malick: slowly, with glimpses of operatic beauty between the melancholy plot and deathly serious performances. Sadly, the mix isn’t quite balanced enough to feel fresh, and Smith’s story does lag at times, hampered by laboured character development that lacks depth.
With Clooney doing his Cast Away best back on Earth, and Flick Jones and Co floating along in an iPhone-esque tin can of space death, the distance between emotional link for both storylines, which play out equally in terms of screen time, just isn’t there to make the film really sing. Clooney handles the small action sequences well enough, and the film’s visual effects are startlingly good, but we never really get to sink our teeth into any other characters enough to make the film’s outcome all the more heartbreaking. The screenplay endeavours to deliver, turning Lofthouse’s solitude in the station into a potentially interesting Lone Wolf And Cub scenario once Caoilinn Springall’s young girl stowaway shows up, but it never worked for me like I could feel it wanting to. The juxtaposition of the archetypal Last Man On Earth having a terminal disease whilst humanity dies all around him, and one of the crew of the Aether having a pregnancy – new life, literally – wasn’t lost on me, and to his credit Clooney should be given props for some of the motifs in the film working on a subtle subliminal level. For the most part, though, the uneven pacing and lack of tangible relational truth to the rest of the supporting cast cripple this flaming dirigible entirely.
The Midnight Sky feels like a film in search of its own identity. In trying to balance the zephy-like plot trajectory and timid, ill-fitting gotcha ending, Clooney crafts an movie that just seems to exist, an empty shell of a thing trying to paste over the cracks with flashy visual effects and beautiful cinematography (props indeed to Martin Ruhe and his camera crew, some of the focus pulling on this film is gorgeous!) when the characters don’t quite gel and the story finds itself sputtering to a near halt. Supporting performances are solid without effect: Kyle Chandler is a far better actor than his role of homesick family man demands, Tiffany Boone could have been replaced by a carboard cutout of a block of wood for all her character, Maya, represents to the movie, while David Oyelowo returns to cinematic spacefaring after the inanity of The Cloverfield Paradox with a softly spoken and impenetrably shallow ship’s captain role. Felicity Jones nails the part of Iris – the actor was pregnant in real life and Clooney requested this be written into the film, leading to some of the film’s most honest and raw moments – and delivers a heartbreaking final monologue down a microphone in a way that feels truly authentic. Sadly, however, the film’s climax and character reveal – who is Iris, and how is the linked to Lofthouse back on Earth? – are a big letdown. No, I didn’t pick it beforehand, but it did leave me scratching my head and not in a good way.
The Midnight Sky is a placid, often plodding sci-fi opus that more often than not doesn’t quite feel like its own film. It’s a piecemeal movie, a movie homaging other, better movies without the sly wink of being an homage. George Clooney’s performance is good, Jones’ is better, and the production design and behind-the-camera technicians here all deserve a big round of applause. The characters and story feel too uneven and thinly drawn out over too long a running time (the film barely lasts two hours but feels like three), however, making this one a movie I will hesitate to return to. If you’re going to make a film that contemplates things, you need to satisfy that contemplation with deep, well-rounded characters or a soulful, meaningful exploration of genuine thematic throughlines. The Midnight Sky doesn’t offer that.