It’s the end of the world as we know it in The Midnight Sky, a post-apocalyptic drama from director George Clooney. Set in the year 2049, an unspecified event is quickly killing off the planet, sending people underground. But there are also people much, much higher above – a group of astronauts who have been on a two-year mission and have no idea they’re heading back to a near-dead planet. Can the seemingly last-man-on Earth warn them to turn around before it’s too late? The clock is ticking, and the stage is set for what could be a thrilling, emotional, intense journey. It’s none of those things.
Clooney launched his directorial career with the wonderful Confession of a Dangerous Mind and followed it up with the even better Good Night, and Good Luck. Since then, though, the actor-turned-filmmaker has struggled with the material he’s embraced (the less said about his terrible 2017 movie Suburbicon the better). With The Midnight Sky, Clooney makes what might be his most ambitious movie yet – a film with two intertwined narratives and loads of special effects. But Clooney the filmmaker loses sight of what should really be driving his movie: emotion. The characters in Midnight Sky are in constant grave peril, all in the midst of an apocalyptic event. We should feel for them; worry for them. We don’t.
As the film opens, it’s “3 weeks after the event.” We’re never told what the event is, exactly, and that’s a great touch. We don’t need to know the details – we just need to know it’s bad. There’s a lot of talk about bad air; birds drop out of the sky; the world at large has gone silent. Clooney is Augustine, a brilliant, and lonely, scientist. He’s also suffering from a terminal illness, and as a result, is in no hurry to try to flee to safety when “the event” happens. Augustine has been stationed at a research facility in the Arctic, and while everyone else has left to go be with their families, Augustine remains behind, alone, seemingly waiting around to die.
But first, Augustine wants to warn some astronauts who have no idea what’s going on. They’ve blasted off to explore K23, a planet Augustine once theorized could sustain life – and serve as a new home for humanity since we flushed our current home down the toilet. Augustine wants to tell the crew of the ship to turn around, but the satellite at his current location isn’t strong enough. He resolves to set off to another location with a stronger signal – but he’s not traveling alone. A mostly-silent little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) has accidentally been left behind, and now she’s accompanying Augustine across the frozen tundra.
These scenes on Earth work the best. Clooney is appropriately weary and beaten-down, and his interactions with Springall are sweet. As a director, Clooney, along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, captures some oft-stunning imagery of Augustine and Iris trudging across a landscape that seems constantly whipped with snow and ice. We can feel the cold wafting off the screen. Clooney peppers these scenes with memorable scenarios: Augustine finds a crashed private plane loaded up with artwork; Augustine and Iris spend the night in a camper that suddenly starts sinking into the ice; white, ghostly wolves stalk the corners of the frame. These moments – which are mostly free of the cloying, on-the-nose dialogue that populates Mark L. Smith’s script – prove that Clooney can still shoot. But his storytelling ability is another matter.
Meanwhile, up in space, the crew of the Aether is slowly making their way home. But they can’t seem to get anyone on the radio, and everyone is feeling on edge. The crew is made up of a mish-mash of people who have very little personality. There’s Sully (Felicity Jones), who is pregnant. The father of the child is Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo), who…likes to play cards? There’s really not much more to him. Then there’s newbie Maya (Tiffany Boone), old pro Sanchez (Demian Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), the type of character who just wants to get back to his family, no matter, damn it.
The space moments allow Clooney to go big with lots of special effects and some admittedly great production design. The futuristic tech is both space-agey and realistic, and the interior design of the ship is refreshingly organic, with structures all over the walls that look like the ribs of whales. It’s neat, but it’s not enough to make any of these off-world moments amount to much. Yes, we want the crew to survive on a basic human, empathetic level. But in all honesty, it’s hard to care whether or not they ever get in touch with Augustine.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, The Midnight Sky also keeps cutting to flashbacks of Augustine as a younger man, played by Ethan Peck with Clooney dubbing his voice. These are the most egregious moments in the film, and they pay off in the worst possible way. I spent the whole movie wondering why the hell we were even being shown these scenes, and when I finally found out, I felt myself deflate. It’s a wild miscalculation.
Another wild miscalculation: Alexandre Desplat‘s score, which is obtrusive and downright dumb. To be clear: Desplat makes beautiful music, but here, Clooney asks him to do a ton of heavy lifting. We know a scene is supposed to be scary because the music has suddenly gotten loud and booming; we know a scene is supposed to be sad because there is an abundance of string instruments. It’s cloying and blunt. Subtlety is not in this film’s vocabulary. The Midnight Sky is ambitious in its attempts at pathos. There’s the germ of something beautiful buried in here; a story trying to tell us that every last life is worth saving even if all seems lost. That’s something worth hearing, but The Midnight Sky fails to even get the conversation going.
/Film rating: 6 out of 10
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