Synopsis: A lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall
Director: George Clooney
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Ardent fans may disagree, but George Clooney has reached a point in the career of a successful actor that I always look forward to. This is the time after an actor has paid their due (he appeared in later seasons of TV’s Facts of Life and the schlocky sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes), had great commercial successes (a star-making turn in ER for NBC and a string of blockbuster hit movies), and won critical accolades (an Oscar for acting in 2006’s Syriana and one for producing 2013’s Argo, not to mention multiple other nominations). He married after years of professed bachelorhood and is a father when he believed he was too immature to be one. With all that under his belt…what’s next? The answer? Sort of anything he wants to do.
Along with contemporaries like Jodie Foster and, to a smaller extent, friends Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Clooney has earned the privilege (right?) to be ultra-picky with the work he does, often going long stretches without a film in the can or in production. Leaning toward more producing than acting or directing, Clooney the actor seems to have taken a backseat to the other roles he seems to prioritize more right now. So, like those other A-list stars mentioned above, when he does peek his head out for a film role (and directs it as well), it’s something to perk up for because there was obviously something about this certain project that was motivating enough to step back in front of the camera.
That film is The Midnight Sky, premiering the week of Christmas on Netflix, and it’s really a two-for-one kind of deal. Both are Clooney movies through and through, for better or for worse…it all depends on which one you’re in the mood to see. One is more of a movie Clooney is known to act in, with a sleek sophistication that builds in suspense the deeper it flies in the face of uncertainty. The other reminded me of a feature Clooney had helmed in the past, one more focused on human drama on a smaller, more intimate level. Both pieces have their merit and varied degrees of satisfying realization throughout, but it’s delivered in a package so depressingly bleak that even an unexpectedly emotionally vibrant finale can’t clear the clouds away.
The year is 2049 (where are all the Blade Runners, I ask you?) and astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, The Monuments Men) is alone at a research station in the Arctic Circle. Evacuated after an unspecified global event three weeks earlier, it appears the Artic Circle is the last stand for humanity according to the radar showing whatever it was that happened inching closer to the pole Lofthouse is nearby. Terminally ill and without family, Lofthouse chose to remain in the facility where he spends his time doing a lot of nothing save for monitoring the ongoing devastation and self-administering his daily dialysis. Flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck) show an inspired young man that feels he found the answer to life on another planet, K-23, and we come to understand the study of that planet through a satellite circling a distant solar system became his one true passion in life above all other things, including a woman he loved (Sophie Rundle) but let slip away.
As he monitors the missions in space, he sees there is one crew still bound for Earth and they’re returning from a mission that involved exploration of a satellite near Jupiter that Lofthouse created. Returning to Earth and whatever has taken place would be bad news and so Lofthouse begins attempting to make contact with the spacecraft Aether and it’s five-member crew. Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo, A Most Violent Year) and communications office Sullivan (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), the crew is unaware of the catastrophe on their home planet, having been unable to contact mission control during the end-stage of their return voyage. With his facility satellite not strong enough to relay a dependable signal, Lofthouse will have to trek in perilous conditions to a nearby facility if he is to get a message to Aether before its too late for them to turn back.
Based on a 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted by Mark L. Harris (Overlord), I won’t venture too far further into the plot of The Midnight Sky because there are some elements that are best left to be discovered as you travel on the journey. Though it’s not a spoiler, per se, there is a small girl (the non-verbal but expressive Caoilinn Springall) Clooney finds has been left behind in the main research facility that becomes his companion on his frozen mission through ice and snow. She serves as a silent sounding board for his thoughts and an outstretched hand of comfort when he finds he needs it most. Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), and an excellent Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures) make up the crew of the Aether, becoming important pieces in what eventually is seen to be a mystery of sorts that’s been staring us in the face from the start.
What also becomes obvious is that as grand as the movie is in certain key moments and for as well-made as the picture is, it operates too much as distinct independent features that it never quite feels like the two stories are tied together. Long sequences with one storyline make you totally forget the other one is happening, and how the ramifications that what is happening in Plot #1 have a direct impact to Plot #2. An important development in Plot #2 more than 2/3 of the way through is almost nullified by a bit of information from Plot #1. These types of overlaps abound, and it pulls the movie apart rather than binding it to be stronger as a whole. I either wanted to see more of the two features interacting with each other (because when they do, it’s all systems go for high-stakes suspense or emotional resonance) or one feature that plays solo.
Following in the footsteps of recent bleak outlook films like Songbird and Greenland, The Midnight Sky doesn’t seem that interested in finding a happy ending to appease us and that’s completely the prerogative of the filmmakers. I continue to be curious to see how audiences embrace these types of movies during our current situation…do we really want to imagine a future even more depressingly futile than now? Maybe it’s because my eyelids started to get just a tad heavy near the end but the finale from Clooney and Lester pulled the rug out from under me a bit too fast. It achieved the desired impact, I think (I hope), and while the actual ending skirted the line of being too abrupt, there was a short section right before the credits played where Clooney achieved something fairly beautiful where all the elements of a film (visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s unsurprisingly hefty but surprisingly haunting score, performances) joined in harmony. Like the stars up in the blackness, there are several of these shining moments in The Midnight Sky…I wish there were more.