Press screeners for The Midnight Sky went out with a charming, slightly apologetic introductory video from director-star George Clooney, and part of me wishes that the film, which Netflix released last week, still came with it. Unlike the tragically self-important introduction from the filmmakers of Antebellum earlier this year, this video had Clooney — in all his rakish, bobble-headed glory — gently lamenting the fact that his big space movie had been consigned to the small screen. He even wistfully noted that they had gone so far as to shoot on Super 65, and, with what felt almost like a comic sigh, suggested that had been a waste of money.
It’s never a good idea to be too influenced by director introductions, but as I watched The Midnight Sky, Clooney’s words continued to ring in my ear. One can’t help but wonder how this thing might have looked on a huge screen. (This is true of almost every film, but it’s particularly true of this film.) Size wouldn’t have solved all the movie’s many problems, to be sure, but it might have helped explain and justify some of Clooney’s choices.
As a director, he’s always been more about conjuring a mood than telling a story, about immersion rather than suspense. Filled with large, empty rooms, great blank stretches of barren landscape, and forlorn glimpses of the lonely vastness of space, The Midnight Sky is a movie you’re supposed to lose yourself in, at least a little bit. And on a small screen — even on a really big small screen — that’s practically impossible.
The tired, patchwork narrative doesn’t help either. The film takes place in 2049, after a series of vague apocalyptic events (why are they always so vague?) have rendered much of the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. Radiation is quickly closing in on the Arctic observatory where bearded, lonely, and terminally ill Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) putters around all by himself. Meanwhile, way out in space, the spaceship Aether, on a mission to the distant, potentially inhabitable moon of Jupiter, K-23, makes its journey back to Earth with good news, unaware that there’s not much of a home left to return to. Through a series of flashbacks, we see that it was Augustine himself, as a young man (played by Ethan Peck with what sounds like Clooney’s voice), who first identified K-23 and helped develop a plan to go there.
One day, back in the forlorn present, Augustine discovers another soul in his giant, empty observatory: a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springal), who seems to have been struck with the same cinematic ailment that afflicts many young girls in grown-up movies: She is completely silent. With a young child to take care of, the otherwise forlorn Augustine, who had previously consigned himself to slow, certain death as perhaps the last human left on the surface of the Earth, suddenly finds urgency in his life.
So, it’s The Martian meets Interstellar meets Logan meets Oblivion meets a couple of other films which shall go unnamed because that would wind up spoiling some late-period twists. All of these aforementioned titles are good movies — a couple of them are great movies — but here, in the uneasy hodgepodge of The Midnight Sky, the disparate but familiar elements don’t quite mix. They feel opportunistic rather than organic. (The picture is based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel The Midnight Sky, which I haven’t read. It’s entirely possible all these weirdly fragmented and derivative plot strands make perfect sense on the page.)
The urgency that Augustine supposedly feels over Iris’s sudden appearance, alas, doesn’t translate to any actual urgency in the filmmaking: Realizing that he and Iris need to relocate to another, bigger, even more remote weather station, both to flee the rapidly approaching radiation and to find a way to communicate with the Aether and warn them not to land on Earth, our hero sets out across the frozen landscape. Their journey offers up a few challenges — wolves, a wrecked plane, breaking ice — but it’s all dealt with in the most cursory manner, as if these incidents are there merely to pad out a story that seems uninterested in itself. It’s all set-up, in other words: narrative machinery being moved around to pay off the movie’s big, final twists.
While all this is happening down on Earth, the crew of the Aether go about their days, happily reliving hologram lives with the families they hope to reunite with soon, and toying around with potential names for the baby that pregnant scientist Sully (Felicity Jones) is going to have with commander Adewole (David Oyelowo). The theme of family runs throughout the film, as it must in all space movies these days. In Augustine’s flashbacks, he recalls how his obsession with his job and with K-23 short-circuited a very promising romance with fellow scientist Jean Sullivan (Sophie Rundle). There are touching ideas here, to be fair, about promises kept by parents, about whether it’s better to suffer with the ones you love or to survive by yourself, but they remain underdeveloped; if you want a truly intense movie about family, survival, and the apocalypse, see Greenland instead.
The supporting cast is strong — Jones and Oyelowo are two of the finest actors working today — but they haven’t been given all that much to do. Even a treacherous and deadly space-walk sequence, one of the film’s highlights, is played in an oddly low-key manner. At times, the narrative needs of the story clash with Clooney’s dedication to psychological authenticity; astronauts on space missions, we’ve been told for years, have to be calm, methodical, buttoned-down types. (The closing credits — this is not really a spoiler, don’t worry — play off this idea to an almost ridiculous degree.) The whole movie keeps de-escalating, even as the narrative becomes more despairing, more emotional, more deadly. That’s a tough, but not impossible, calculus. Say what you will about Damien Chazelle, but in his hands, Neil Armstrong’s stony professionalism in First Man became that movie’s dramatic engine. James Gray achieved something similar in Ad Astra, turning Brad Pitt’s emotionlessness into that film’s central conflict. But to make such a paradoxical conceit work, one has to be an unusually refined filmmaker. And Clooney, sadly, is not that.
He remains, however, a great actor. The Midnight Sky comes to life whenever we’re left alone with Augustine. Weathered and ruined, with deep-set eyes that seem to recede further and further into his skull, Augustine seems to have given up on life, struggling to muster feelings he hasn’t had in a long time. Again, one wonders how seeing him on a huge screen might have enhanced the movie’s impact: The greatest of cinematic spectacles, after all, has always been the human face, and Clooney still has a great one, even at its most run-down and shattered. If this otherwise disjointed picture musters a certain ragged power by the time it’s all over, credit goes to the actor, not so much the director. But who knows? Maybe I’ll feel different if I ever get to see this film on a screen as big as the sky.
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