When it comes to George Clooney films, there’s a little something for everyone. You like him endearing and silly, Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988). You like him sexy and deadly, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Or perhaps more maudlin is your speed, then check out Up in the Air (2009). Whether he’s in front of the camera, producing, directing or all three, Clooney’s almost always a joy to watch, even if the film itself isn’t your cup of tea. He’s the rare performer whose name will still put butts in seats as you never know which version you’ll receive. His latest project, The Midnight Sky, sees Clooney take on an adaptation of the Lily Brooks-Dalton book “Good Morning, Midnight” as a producer, director, and actor, and it couldn’t be more timely. The premise focuses on a scientist trying to warn an incoming space mission that Earth has become uninhabitable and they must turn around to save themselves. With this logline, you’d expect something akin to 2014’s Interstellar or 2015’s The Martian, but it has more similarity to 2019’s sorely underappreciated Ad Astra. The Midnight Sky is a meditation on connection in an era where humanity is growing extinct. As luminous and exploratory as this sounds, by failing to execute a cohesive narrative (that’s also riddled with predictability), the human connection required to maintain tension is altogether absent.
2049 and an unknown event has occurred on Earth leading to widespread radiation creeping over the globe. While everyone else stationed at the Artic Circle’s Barbeau Observatory evacuates, scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) refuses as his terminal illness makes the idea of running away ridiculous. Soon after the station empties, a call comes in from Aether, a research vessel sent to a distant planet, K-23, to determine if it’s habitable for humanity, except the radiation makes communication near-impossible. The Aether grows ever-closer to Earth and Augustine’s the only one left who can warn them of the danger ahead. As if this isn’t bad enough, Lofthouse discovers a straggler from the evacuation in the form of young girl Iris (Caoilinn Springall), leaving him to figure out how to protect her and the crew simultaneously.
Let’s get into the good stuff first. The Midnight Sky is mood. Big time. From the art direction, production design, costuming, and score, Sky exudes tone in every consumable aspect communicating often diametrically opposed notions. Barbeau is located in the Artic Circle, so a chill is to be expected, yet the inside of the facility is warm and inviting. Even with only one occupant, the emptiness is not pervasive, given the lighting and decoration. The observatory appears to have housed several families and staff, so the need to make it somewhat homey makes sense given the isolation from the rest of humanity. Barbeau is a nest from which exploration can be staged safely in the blistering cold, now the temporary last safe place on Earth. In contrast, the Aether is as futuristic as you’d expect for a film featuring space travel in the near-future, requiring whites and blues as a prominent color to convey coldness and isolation. Except there is no isolation as the five-person crew treats each other like family, complete with gentle ribbing, respect for individual private time, or sharing their privatized holodeck-like experience with others. Even with the tight uniforms and rigidity of rank/post, there is no loneliness amongst them. Connecting the two disparate locations is the music from Alexandre Desplat (Little Women), serving as the thread which weaves the emotions of the characters in and out of the scenes with such incredible ease. There’s one sequence in particular whose description would absolutely ruin the power of the moment, but the score wonderfully ratchets the tension by going in the opposite direction you’d expect. The Midnight Sky is far more introspective than bombastic and Desplat’s score plays into the emotion of the moment for the characters versus trying to clue the audience into what Clooney-as-director wants us to feel. Lovely as the music is on the whole, and if you’ve heard Desplat’s score for Little Women you know how capable a composer he is, the score does little else than offer a binding agent to the concurrent narratives at play.
Here’s where we run into trouble: the narratives don’t mesh in a manner which makes them feel organic or, honestly, interesting. Some of this is because beats within the script, adapted by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), are not only predictable but are unable to conjure, within the audience, the emotions the film so desperately wants you to feel. In one thread, the audience follows Augustine as he strives to make contact with Aether, the presumably last person alive on Earth who is either going to die of radiation poisoning or whatever ailment he suffers from. There’s a poignancy here as Augustine mines his memories to ponder how he got to where he is and the responsibility he holds in Aether’s mission. In the other, is the Aether itself, a vessel brimming with life and optimism. It is literally bringing with it salvation of a new start. The problem is that, individually, the stories are compelling, inspiring, and a bit stirring. Except Clooney’s approach to combining the stories is so awkward that any emotional resonance is all but obliterated. It certainly doesn’t help that the staging of events within the film are formulaic at best, uninspired at worst. In a Q&A following my screening of the film, Clooney responses to a question about a specific scene, commenting that he’s aware people familiar with film can anticipate what’s coming next, but the significance of the moment before it is, itself, lovely. He is, by the way, correct on both points, which is why I found myself both rolling my eyes and then empathically shuddering at the performances before me. However, this doesn’t excuse something like the final shot of the film which, by itself is gorgeous and moving, but, within the context of the larger film, is such emotional indulgence that it absolutely removes you from the moment. Clooney has within him the capability to be a great actor (his performance here, though mostly silent, conveys the portions of grief, pain, and hope that holds the audience close) and a fantastic director (if you haven’t seen Good Night, and Good Luck, please do find it), yet something is, within the context of the whole, missing here. You can see the intent and identify what works. You can address and explore the meditation Clooney aspires to regarding the tenuous nature of humanity and the deep need for connection, especially now amid various levels of quarantine. Except, taken as a whole, it is empty. Instead of eliciting ruminations on love, loss, and interrelation, The Midnight Sky comes across beautiful yet shallow.
For fans of Brooks-Dalton’s novel, be advised that changes were made from page to screen. Some of this, I presume, is because adaptations do require certain adjustments in order to make the transition from one medium to another more in tune with the language of the latter. Some of this, also, is due to unavoidable things, like Felicity Jones’s real pregnancy before the start of shooting. Having not read the novel, I can’t speak to how one who has will respond to any kind of changes, but I can say for certain that the story presented is not itself why The Midnight Sky didn’t grasp me, rather the presentation.
I cannot in good conscience end the review without at least mentioning newcomer Caoilinn Springall, who, at 7 years old, shot the film with Clooney in Iceland. Perhaps it’s because I’m a father (second one arrived recently), films with child actors hit me differently than before. The things I found to be disingenuous or unrealistic I can now see for their truth. Springall elicits far deeper emotional reactions than any of her far more experienced castmates and that’s without nary a word. In the same Q&A, Clooney spoke about how natural her performance is, often to the point where all they needed was one take to capture something and it was, occasionally, something unexpected. Honestly, I have not been so moved by a wordless performance since Logan’s Dafne Keen. There’s a simple rawness in the performance that makes her scenes grander than those without.
Though I did not find myself enraptured with The Midnight Sky, if you are any kind of space enthusiast, enjoy a space-based drama, or are simply a fan of Clooney’s, the film offers enough visual pleasures that making the argument to chance theaters would be understandable (under the safest conditions possible), though not much is lost when viewed through a decent home theater. We at EoM always encourage seeing a film in whichever environment makes you most comfortable right now, but there is no disputing that aspects of The Midnight Sky would benefit from a larger than average presentation typically found at home.
In select theaters December 11th, 2020.
Available on Netflix December 23rd, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.