George Clooney is a talented actor and director, and often produces excellent work when he does both of those things. The Midnight Sky, his latest starring and directorial effort, features an incredible ensemble of character actors, stunning effects and production design, and a story clearly influenced by many seminal science fiction stories, but even in the hands of such talent fails to become something special.
Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist living at a remote research station in the arctic. Everyone else who lived there has left, all wishing to be with heir families in the wake of a global catastrophe. Augustine has no-one though and stays behind to live out his final days alone.
Of course, it then turns out that a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall) has been left behind too. Augustine now has to spend his time caring for her, while also trying to make contact with the Aether, a space ship returning from Jupiter where the crew had successfully surveyed a habitable moon that Augustine had discovered some decades before.
The crew of the Aether are frustrated as they can’t raise anyone on the radio, not NASA, or any American agency, or anyone. Augustine realizes that there is a more powerful transmitter at a station some miles to the north and he sets out with Iris to get there.
If you think you can already see where the stories are going, you are probably right. The Midnight Sky wears its influences rather plainly on its sleeve, and as a result, never really rises above them.
The story on the ground is mostly the story of Augustine and Iris heading over the tundra and encountering many of the hardships you’d imagine on a journey of that magnitude, most notably thinning ice. For such a perilous journey though, it never feels like anyone is in any danger, especially after one sequence that sees Augustine plunged into the arctic water –water that you know would endanger his life with hypothermia– which he hops out of like he’d just taken a cold shower, and shrugs off like he spilt a soda on his lap. This sequence destroys pretty much all the tension in the story.
Up in space, there is at least a little more character drama, with the five astronauts trying to figure out a route home after being knocked off course, and unsure anyone is even waiting for them. There is a big spacewalk scene that is clearly influenced by Gravity, with space debris pummelling the ship while the inhabitants are outside, that is technically impressive but also feels devoid of stakes, even if it does end with a terrifying image.
The biggest misstep of the film is the series of flashbacks that are peppered throughout the story, highlighting Augustine’s younger years, having just discovered the habitable moon. There are several strange choices made, not the least of which is where the flashbacks pop up: each one disrupts the flow of the narrative. Ethan Peck stars as the younger version of Augustine, and in an immersion-breaking choice, Clooney dubs all of Peck’s lines. Whether you know Peck’s voice or not, it never feels right to hear Clooney’s voice coming out of his mouth.
The flashbacks do eventually pay off in a third act reveal, but you will have guessed what is coming well before it happens. When it happens, it feels hackneyed despite the film brimming with self-importance and telling you exactly how you should be feeling through Alexandre Desplat’s completely overwrought score.
That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots: the design of the Aether is stunning, with organic shapes and soft spaces everywhere, and a soft exterior wall stretched over what appears to based on a ribcage of sorts. The design of the research stations and computer interfaces are top-notch and logical extensions of what we see today as well. Clooney has lovely chemistry with newcomer Springall, which makes many of their scenes delightful. The nature of the global catastrophe is never explained also, and only the slightest of implication is required to let you know that whatever happened was definitely our fault: something that feels very true in 2020.
It’s hard not to admire the film’s ambition. Everyone involved seems to have set out make the next big philosophical science fiction film, and they brought along enough money to make that happen, too. There are few moments where you can’t see them calling back to one of its predecessors though, whether it’s Children of Men or The Martian or Interstellar or whichever, and the film fails to become something special of it own as a result.
The Midnight Sky premieres Wednesday, December 23rd on Netflix.