George Clooney is a director of much ambition. Unafraid it seems to tackle any narrative of any genre, and The Midnight Sky feels like the closest thing we may ever get to his magnum opus – at least where scale is concerned. After his misfire Suburbicon, many were curious and maybe even hotly anticipating his return to the director’s chair. While it’s his most ambitious directorial work to date, The Midnight Sky falls short of other odysseys succinctly connecting space and earth. It often feels like two different movies in one and whose connection is as static as the radio waves used to link them. Both the characters of earth and those in space, however, find themselves asking the same thing: “What did we do?”
What humans did is something we can only imagine, but what it led to was catastrophic. A cataclysmic event in the year 2049 that leaves the world uninhabitable. Only one man remains. At an observatory in the artistic circle, this man eats alone, sleeps alone, drinks alone, plays chess alone, all while observing the world’s collapse on a monitor. It’s a lonely existence for a scientist who dreamed of nothing but hope for humanity. As Augustine (Clooney) stares up at the midnight sky through a circular window, the narrative soon flashes backward, as it does a few times in the film. We see a young man, a leader in his field, researching a new habitable planet – a stark contrast to the old man now stuck on a dead one. The dream of colonization may have come too late for him, but he still hopes to make it a reality in some way.
He becomes desperate to get into contact with a space station that was tasked with visiting his new Eden. And those astronauts are desperate, too. Desperate to return home, but they’ll soon find out there isn’t one to return to. Based on the book Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, perhaps this is a “better book than a movie” situation as Mark L. Smith’s adaptation struggles to keep the quality of writing consistent between the film’s two settings – its biggest flaw. While the space sequences are certainly technically impressive and otherworldly, with unique production design to its ship, there’s a huge lack of characterization. It’s hard to care for any of these characters when the lead and most well-written character is guiding us back to earth. And when we arrive, we wish we could stay forever, especially with Augustine’s discovery that he’s not alone after all. A curious, quiet little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) was left behind and he finds himself having to look after her. They go through an incredibly emotional journey of survival – one that is also equally tender and humorous. Together, they provide the spark that the other part of the narrative is lacking.
Because of the lack of characterization, the other actors, like Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo, aren’t provided with any meat to chew on. That’s all left for Clooney, a normally spry, ageless actor who is terminally ill and aged here. He and Springall bounce off each other perfectly. Having only one line, Springall has to act a lot with her expressions and she excels. It’s all up to them and the film’s technical elements to try to keep everything together. Alexandre Desplat does what Desplat does and creates a beautiful piece of music that contrasts the hopefulness of space travel and the melancholy reality on the ground. There are also some tense bits of action, too, as the characters battle the unforgiving elements of both the arctic and space.
The Midnight Sky is also, unfortunately, a film whose ending can really break it as it executes a predictable, eye-rolling twist. But it’s one built, I suppose, out of hope. As man fights against man and against science, there’s also hope in the future and of its new generations. But it’s also a film that feels like a plea to end our obsession with the future and to preserve and protect our present. Those hopes for the future won’t work out with the carelessness of present actions. Something, I’m sure, we can all agree has potent relevancy.
The Midnight Sky will be in select theaters this month and then available globally on Netflix December 23.