The Midnight Sky

Director: George Clooney
Screenplay: Mark L. Smith (based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton)
Stars: George Clooney (Augustine Lofthouse), Felicity Jones (Sully), David Oyelowo (Adewole), Caoilinn Springall (Iris), Kyle Chandler (Mitchell), Demián Bichir (Sanchez), Tiffany Boone (Maya), Sophie Rundle (Jean), Ethan Peck (Younger Augustine), Tim Russ (Mason Mosley), Miriam Shor (Mitchell’s Wife)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
The Midnight Sky
The Midnight Sky

As both an actor and director, George Clooney has studiously avoided anything that smacks of consistency, veering wildly among genres and tones, sometimes subverting and sometimes trading on his platinum movie-star image. He is one of the few actors alive who could convincingly deliver Joel and Ethan’s comically highbrow dialogue in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), brood in deep existential angst in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), and lead a Rat Pack-worthy crew of high-stakes, well-dressed criminals in the three Ocean’s films. Like Brad Pitt, his Ocean’s co-star, Clooney is a gifted actor who is equally comfortable in comedies and dramas, and he exudes both Old World Hollywood charm and a relentless desire to thwart any attempt to corner him into a type—including “movie star.”

This deft dance away from constricting labels has been particularly true of Clooney’s work as a director. Consider that his feature debut as director was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), a deliriously gonzo account of Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s claim that he was secretly working as a government assassin while hosting one of the most ridiculous programs in the history of broadcast television. He followed with Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), an austere and deeply felt account of journalist Edward R. Murrow’s challenge to the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Since then, he has directed Leatherheads (2008), a period comedy about early pro football; The Ides of March (2011), a deft political thriller; and The Monuments Men (2014), another oddball period comedy-thriller about a special platoon tasked with rescuing artworks from the Nazis during World War II. He then helmed Suburbicon (2017), a nasty bit of noirish black comedy based on an early script by the Coens (in several of whose films he has acted), which stands in stark contrast to his latest film, The Midnight Sky, a somber-epic science-fiction drama about global catastrophe and the potential end of the human race.

Interestingly, The Midnight Sky shares with Suburbicon a fundamental challenge, which is that it is essentially two separate movies that are loosely harnessed together until the very end, when we learn how they are actually interconnected. The revelation of that interconnection in The Midnight Sky’s final five minutes is genuinely moving and tragically beautiful, but it is not quite enough to make us forget how awkwardly structured the rest of the film often feels as it bounces back and forth between one story taking place in the Arctic and another aboard a deep-space vessel returning from a trip to survey K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons that is thought to be habitable.

The Arctic story involves Clooney’s Dr. Augustine Lofthouse, a heavily bearded and terminally ill scientist who stays behind at a remote observatory while everyone else evacuates via military transport. We are told that it is the year 2049 and it has been three weeks since an unidentified “event” has occurred, which threatens all life on the planet. Augustine is alone at the observatory, where he knows that he will soon die of his terminal condition, which requires him to go through dialysis several times a week. But, as it turns out, he is not alone; a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) has somehow been left behind and has been hiding in the building. Augustine, who is clearly a loner with little interest in human contact, is at first put off by Iris’s presence, but he slowly warms to her even though she does not speak. Something about her finds the cracks in his steely exterior, initiating a growing surrogate father-daughter dynamic that finds its emotional peak in a scene halfway through the film where he thinks he has lost her in a snowstorm.

The other half of the film involves the crew of the spaceship Aether, which is on the final leg of its journey home after being gone for two years. The crew, which is captained by David Oyelowo’s Adewole, is a likable group of adventurous intellectuals. There are several scientists—Sully (Felicity Jones), who is pregnant, Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir)—and the ship is navigated by Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), who is particularly homesick and desirous to get back to his wife and teenage children (the crew members are able to “interact” with digital holographic recordings of their friends and family in a special room in the ship, but it is more bittersweet than reassuring).

The two stories are connected in that Augustine realizes that the Aether is still out in space and the crew does not know what has happened on Earth and therefore must be warned not to return. The communication satellite at the observatory is not strong enough to reach them, so he and Iris must brave the brutal Arctic weather to travel several days by snow mobile to a nearby weather station, whose satellite is stronger. This provides for a number of dangerous moments, including the discovery of a crashed private jet filled with priceless artwork and a temporary refuge in a research shelter that begins sinking through the thin glacier ice. Augustine and Iris’s travails are matched by those facing the crew of the Aether, who are concerned because they have been unable to contact anyone on Earth in three weeks, and they soon run into numerous problems when they get off-course and are several times pummeled while travelling through uncharted meteor belts that damage the ship and knock out their radar and communications.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith (The Revenant, Overlord), in adapting Lily Brooks-Dalton’s debut novel Good Morning, Midnight, tries to give meaningful connection to the two parallel narratives by emphasizing both their commonalities (namely, the characters’ isolation from the rest of humanity—or what’s left of it) and their disparities (frozen tundra versus outer space, growing connection versus already established community). The Midnight Sky, with its focus on the end of life on Earth, is an inherently despondent film, but Clooney reaches hard to find moments of levity and reminders that humankind, despite having clearly destroyed itself, might be worth saving. The crew of the Aether feels like a family and they work together in ways that feel genuine and lived-in, and when one character is grievously injured (in a scene that uses blood in zero-gravity to both horrifying and oddly poetic effect), we feel the loss. The same is true of the growing bond between Augustine and Iris; on paper, it has the potential to smack of cliché and pathos, but Clooney, as both an actor and director, makes it work.

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Overall Rating: (3)

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