Until until now, George Clooney’s efforts as a director have stayed firmly planted on Earth, with the stories that attract him being either inspired by true events (Good Night, and Good Luck) or tapped directly into the zeitgeist (The Ides of March). With The Midnight Sky, Clooney not only expands his horizons as a filmmaker, literally, but he also takes a giant leap into the speculative. In the process, he’s made a film that doesn’t always hang together, yet it ends up as possibly his most moving feature to date.
To be sure, Clooney’s track record as a director is also significantly uneven: the two films mentioned above are easily the best of the seven he’s helmed. Others, such as The Monuments Men and the almost unwatchable Suburbicon, have been muddled and unfocused affairs. The Midnight Sky falls in the middle of the pack. It’s his first direct attempt at helming science fiction, and while it’s earnest and often beautiful to look at, the movie falls prey to some familiar tropes as well.
Based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Dalton-Brooks, The Midnight Sky stars Clooney as Augustine Lofthouse, a brilliant but lonely astrophysicist stationed at a remote Arctic research facility. It’s three weeks after “the Event,” an unspecified global cataclysm. From the sparse information made available, which one may find either refreshing or irritating, we only know it spewed enough radiation into the atmosphere to make the Earth uninhabitable.
With the rest of the station’s crew headed south to reunite with their families and either prepare for the end or find a place to hide out, Augustine–who’s suffering from a terminal illness–decides to stay behind. And in his remaining time he has an important mission to complete: contacting the crew of an exploratory ship that’s returning from a habitable moon orbiting Jupiter and warning them to turn back and start a new life there (Augustine himself discovered the planetoid).
But there are two problems for Augustine: the transmitter at the facility isn’t powerful enough to communicate with the vessel, and he finds himself caring for a little girl named Iris (Caiolinn Springall), who can’t speak and has apparently been left behind accidentally. With the girl in tow, Augustine begins a treacherous journey through the ice and snow to reach another station with a stronger transmitter. Meanwhile the ship’s crew, headed by David Oyelowo and a pregnant Felicity Jones, grow increasingly uneasy at the silence from Earth, even as their craft is buffeted by asteroids and other dangers.
Clooney has previously starred in acclaimed sci-fi dramas like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, and on the production side, he certainly seems to have paid attention to what his directors were doing. From its vast cosmic vistas to the realistic yet striking designs of the ship and other technology (the movie is set just far enough in the future for its esthetic to be plausible while still relatable), The Midnight Sky is beautifully rendered.
When an actor pauses during a spacewalk scene–which is otherwise like similar sequences from a dozen other sci-fi efforts–to admire the distant span of the Milky Way, one truly feels the majesty and awe of the view, a grace note that is too often left out of a lot of modern science fiction films. Even back on Earth, Clooney successfully makes the viewer feel the sheer emptiness and frigidness of the treacherous terrain Augustine and Iris must traverse, which includes eerie touches like a crashed plane bearing unexpected cargo and ghostly wolves lurking around the edges of their visibility.
The story itself teeters between being overly derivative and disarmingly earnest, with earlier efforts like Interstellar, the aforementioned Gravity, The Martian, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon all touched on as the film progresses. Having not having read the book, we’re not sure if this is directly from Dalton-Brooks’ tale or incorporated by The Revenant screenwriter Mark L. Smith. Clooney also has trouble with his pacing, creating perhaps less a sense of urgency than the material may require. Consequently, he relies on Alexandre Desplat’s lovely but occasionally overbearing music to fill in the gaps.
Luckily, he’s also got himself and a strong cast to push past the movie’s issues. Almost unrecognizable in a shapeless flannel shirt, a notably thinner physique and a massive white beard, Clooney palpably embodies not just Augustine’s profound loneliness but his dogged determination to make himself useful in his own end of days. There’s also a plot twist near the end (hinted at in a mostly flat series of flashbacks featuring Star Trek: Discovery’s Ethan Peck as a young Augustine) that is both cloying and formulaic, but the actor manages to sell that with understated emotion.
The same goes for the actors playing the crew of the ship, which include Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler, and Tiffany Boone, who make up the background of Oyelowo and Jones’ mission. Their characters basically start out as types–Chandler is the family man determined to get back, Boone is the wide-eyed newbie on her first mission–but the actors manage to imbue them with enough personality to keep the viewer engaged. The crew members all remain refreshingly professional and calm, even under extreme duress, and it’s nice to see one situation not turn into the potentially mutinous scenario that other films may have explored.
Even with its faults, The Midnight Sky ends up being quite affecting. Perhaps it’s the state of the world we’re living in right now, but the film’s ultimate message–that human life and relationships are worth preserving no matter what–is a touching and timely one. Combine that with the movie’s memorable visuals and production esthetic, and Clooney has come up with a commendable first attempt at an often difficult genre to master.
The Midnight Sky opens in limited theatrical release this Friday, Dec. 11, and premieres on Netflix on Dec. 23.