The Midnight Sky
George Clooney grapples with space once again in this survivalist sci-fi drama, and the results are generally involving, engaging and poignant.
It has been four years since George Clooney last appeared in a movie, dating back to 2016's Hail, Caesar! and Money Monster. Accordingly, while The Midnight Sky definitely isn't a documentary, the fact that it features the actor at his most bearded and reclusive instantly feels fitting. Also noteworthy: that this sci-fi drama joins the small but significant list of films that combine the star and space, following Solaris and Gravity. Clooney has everything from TV medical dramas and sitcoms to heist flicks, action fare, rom-coms and a stint as Batman on his resume, of course. He's a versatile actor, and an Oscar-winning one, too (for 2005's Syriana). But there's something particularly alluring and absorbing about seeing Clooney get existential, as all movies that reach beyond earth's surface tend to. He clearly agrees, because he not only leads The Midnight Sky but also directs it as well.
Clooney plays workaholic research scientist Dr Augustine Lofthouse and, although The Midnight Sky rockets into space, it doesn't send its protagonist there. Instead, in 2049, after an environmental disaster has made the planet uninhabitable, he chooses to remain in the Arctic as his colleagues evacuate. He's dying anyway, and frequently hooks himself up to machines for treatment — in between downing whiskey, watching old movies, eating cereal and talking to himself. Then, interrupting his lonely decline, two things change his status quo. Firstly, a young girl (debutant Caoilinn Springall) mysteriously pops up out of nowhere, refusing to speak but obviously needing an adult's care. Secondly, Augustine realises that he'll have to trek across the oppressively icy terrain outside to connect via radio to a crew on the spaceship Aether, who've been on a two-year mission to ascertain whether newly discovered Jupiter moon K-23 can support life, and are now making their return unaware of what's been happening at home
The space movie genre is as busy as the sky above is vast. Consequently, films about folks marooned in the great black expanse, dealing with the fallout of a pioneering journey and/or trying to make contact — whether those in space's depths are attempting to chat to earth, trying to find others lost in the same situation, or being sought by the people left on terra firma — reach screens every year. The Midnight Sky proves familiar as a result; if you've watched Clooney's other space-set features, or Interstellar, The Martian, Ad Astra, Contact or 2001: A Space Odyssey, you'll spy elements you've seen before. Although adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton's 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, that screenwriter Mark L Smith is on scripting duties also adds a number of recognisable components. He penned the screenplay for The Revenant, another tale of survival against an unwelcoming terrain. Here, he has graduated from the wilds of 19th-century America to one of the globe's frostiest and most isolated spots, as well as all that lingers outside of the planet's atmosphere.
The Midnight Sky isn't merely an exercise in flinging derivative parts out into the beyond and seeing what comes back, however. The key, both on-and off-screen, is Clooney. When the film spends time with the Aether's astronauts, including the pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), ship commander Adewole (David Oyelowo, Gringo), veteran pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), and other crew members Sanchez (Demián Bichir, The Grudge) and Maya (Tiffany Boone, Hunters), it's at its most generic. Indeed, when it ventures to space, The Midnight Sky almost screams for either Augustine to head there as well, or for the feature to plummet back down to earth to join him once more. As the movie's focal point, Clooney is as soulful and grizzled as he's ever been. As a filmmaker, he certainly gifts himself the feature's best moments. But in the latter guise, he's also aware that films about space are films about connection, including to routines and everyday moments — so the fact that Sully and company's exploits feel well-worn, including a climactic sequence involving an action-packed space walk, cleverly reinforces that idea.
Unmistakably, this is a big-thinking and big-feeling feature. Its characters grapple with life, love and loss — aka what it means to be human, and to have lived — while also confronting the reality that the world they know is changing forever. It's purely coincidental, but The Midnight Sky overflows with 2020-esque inclusions, too. Having your sense of normality ripped away, spending time alone trying to reach out to others, and endeavouring to find a route back to the existence we once knew but may never again in quite the same way couldn't be more relatable (and that's just from the pandemic; parallels with climate change are also unsurprisingly rife). Amidst the obligatory outer space sing-alongs, as well as the smattering of life-and-death incidents, these concepts land as thoughtfully as intended. It helps that, spanning not only himself but also Jones, Oyelowo, Chandler, Bichir and Boone, Clooney has amassed an impressive cast. His co-stars mightn't be playing the most fleshed-out figures, script-wise, and may not match the actor/director in terms of screen presence, but the same uncertainty and yearning lingers in their portrayals.
The script's use of flashbacks to Augustine's past are less convincing, as is their importance to The Midnight Sky's third act via a plot development that's easy to predict. Alexandre Desplat's (Little Women) score also falls on the heavy-handed side, stressing the mood and tone in an unnecessarily forceful way — especially given that Martin Ruhe's (Catch-22) cinematography is aptly pensive and probing, particularly in its earth-bound visuals. Still, Clooney is a skilled filmmaker. He has demonstrated that again and again since he first jumped behind the lens with 2002's excellent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and 2005's masterful Good Night, and Good Luck, and it's clear here as well. The Midnight Sky isn't his greatest achievement as a director in general or as an actor in a space flick, but it's an involving, engaging and poignant addition to his resume on both counts.
The Midnight Sky is screening in select cinemas in Auckland, and will also be available to stream via Netflix from Wednesday, December 23.