'The Midnight Sky': It's the End of the World and Clooney Takes It in (Too-Serious) Stride
In George Clooney’s Midnight Sky, now streaming on Netflix, a cataclysmic event has happened on Earth, and a scientist named Augustine Lofthouse (played by Clooney) has decided — contra the rest of the event’s survivors, who go into hiding somewhere — to wait it out alone. That’s in part because he has cancer and feels like he’s on his last leg anyway. It’s also because he’s one of those gruff, emotionally distant, genius-types, the kind of qualities that make you charming (for the wrong reasons) as a young man and unlikeable as an old recluse who’s set in his ways.
He will, of course, be forced out of that self-isolation one way or another, if the movie (an adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton) gets its way. Which it does. There’s a second story at stake here, it turns out. A space crew on a ship called the Aether has been exploring one of Jupiter’s moons and, being out of range, doesn’t know that there’s no home worth coming home to. So the obvious — which isn’t to say unworthy — mission plays out. The Last Man On Earth will set out to warn that crew (peopled by the likes of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, and Kyle Chandler) however he can; the clock will tick until that either does or doesn’t happen.
All of which makes for a fine premise. But The Midnight Sky is a good example of a movie that sells itself short by trying to be one thing — serious, heavy, emotional — when, by all available indicators, it should be more of a thriller, or more ridiculous, or at the very least more fun.
The problem starts with the writing, but much of the fault lies, unfortunately, with the director. The script engineers all manner of connections between its multiple threads: between past and present, between the earthbound Augustine (plus a surprise visitor) and the crew of Aether, who don’t yet know that there’s no home for them on Earth. Suffice it to say, it’s the deadweight architecture of all these connections that weighs the movie down — not least because so much of what’s in store feels borrowed from too many movies, only without the pleasure of pastiche: the movie plays it painfully straight.
Nor is it much help that so much of what the movie has up its sleeve feels reducible to emotional bullet points about Augustine. The flashbacks back to Augustine’s younger days as a hotshot scientist with a theory of habitable life on a moon of Jupiter have implications for much of what’s happening in the present — and are a sign, among other things, that the young hotshot would be proven wrong. The flashbacks also give us a romantic subplot that doesn’t work out but does inspire in Augustine a late desire to chip away at his solitude — and to have a daughter, a promise the movie eventually fulfills twice over, when you think about it.
This all has the unfortunate effect of making what’s actually happening on screen feel like placeholders, mere puzzle pieces, for the obvious “Aha!” to come. Only, because you can see it coming, there’s not much revelation at stake once you finally get there. And getting there is like trudging through so much Arctic snow with a kid in tow (a thing that happens in this movie), or, better yet, like having nothing much to do on a spaceship lightyears from Earth. There are ways around this problem: making the characters interesting, constructing drama that feels intimate and surprising rather than obvious, leaning into the pastiche, becoming more of a hangout thriller in which character thrives and danger feels heightened — anything, really, would beat the staid drama that this movie quickly becomes.
Instead of any of that, Midnight Sky continually disrupts its fairly boring drama with a series of false catastrophes which, in Clooney’s hands, get doled out with a perfunctory sense of necessity. The movie tries, tries, and tries again to drum up interest with minor disasters, in a clockwork rhythm that eventually becomes a cross the film wearily bears. Look, the premise lays it on a bit thick in the first place: cancer, apocalypse, a distant patriarch backstory, an astronaut dilemma with potentially devastating consequences. Add to that a grease fire, radiation risks, arduous treks trough the Arctic tundra, babysitting duty, and on and on, and the results feel ridiculous without ever feeling fun.
It’s all a little too stage-managed to prove satisfying. If streaming algorithms have encouraged studios to do anything, it’s to fight for our attention — however nonsensically. A movie like Speed has a built-in suspense motor that keeps us hanging on; the more recent Gravity — in which Clooney stars and which Midnight Sky invokes a little too often — has a disaster-clock premise too, with that debris cloud circling the earth every 90-or-so minutes. In these movies, the urgency is openly artificial — and no less thrilling for it. But Midnight Sky has no such device anchoring its premise, at least not a natural one. So the movie instead throws everything it can into the pot, endangering its characters with a suddenness that grows more predictable, more tedious, by the minute.
This would hit differently in a movie whose drama was otherwise compelling, or in an apocalyptic science fiction tale that were more interested in the science fiction of it all. But Midnight Sky is an overwrought drama in space-age clothing; neither the drama, nor the departures from reality, hold much interest, even as the movie’s efforts to do so are, on all fronts, painfully apparent. I kept wishing for it to grow a little less interested in the clingy machinations of its emotional backstory, most of which serve Clooney’s character at the expense of most anyone else, and a bit moreso in the occasionally interesting flashes of design sprouting up every so often. This stuff — the Aether astronauts and their ability to re-inhabit holograms of their memories to keep them sane, for example — surely has a heady psychological impact on the people involved. But the movie’s sense of this — of most things — is parenthetical and abbreviated, to the point of amounting to nothing.
Midnight Sky has less to show us, less of an experience to give us, than its dreary style, heavy tone, or plod-footed, serious pacing would suggest. The mismatch there is the crux of its failure. Because the movie is, essentially, silly — and could have been fun if it’d embraced as much, targeting less of the “serious adult movie” audience and more of the “weirdo sci-fi trash” audience. That’d require a less serious-minded director, someone who can see this material for the pulp it actually his. For his many, many merits, Clooney is not that guy. He’s a timeless star; his charisma, whittled down as it is in this case, is one of the few things that carries us through the movie coherently. What he needed, in the end, is a director who’d have known how to have fun with it — a director who’d have seen a name Augustine Lofthouse in the script and recognized, from that moment onward, the invitation to be a little ridiculous.
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