Review: In 'The Midnight Sky,' a grizzled George Clooney considers the end of the world

George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in the movie "The Midnight Sky". (Netflix)
It may be the unique circumstances we live in, but it seems like every movie released in 2020 will turn out to be a subsistence movie. Until the final light goes out (or the final black fades) the point is to get through as long as possible.
George Clooney's "The Midnight Sky" is no different. The film, adapted by Mark L. Smith ("The Revenant") from Lily Brooks-Dalton's novel "Good Morning, Midnight", places Clooney as an accomplished astronomer Dr. Augustine Lofthouse in 2049 amid global disaster The end is indeed at hand.
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We meet Augustine for the first time at the Barbeau Observatory on the Arctic Circle, three weeks after his colleagues and their families were evacuated by helicopter. The astronomer suffers from an unnamed incurable disease that requires regular blood transfusions. He stays behind, shuffles through his days and monitors the air waves for signs of life. We quickly learn that beyond the polar regions it is unlikely that anyone else survived this catastrophic event (even without a name) and that his colleagues are probably all dead. In these final days, Augustine recalls key moments when he chose his career over living and loving, a deep discontent that infects his mood.
The observatory's communications system informs Augustine that NASA's Aether spacecraft, returning from a two-year mission to explore K23, a potentially habitable moon in Jupiter, will soon be in satellite range. He realizes that he must do everything possible to contact her and warn her of the impending doom of the earth.
Meanwhile, Augustine discovers a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who was apparently left behind after the evacuation and is hiding in the kitchen of the observatory. Unable or unwilling to speak, Iris presents the belligerent Augustine with an unwanted companion, and the film is a useful narrative tool.
On board the Aether we will be introduced to the crew: Felicity Jones as communications specialist Sully, David Oyelowo as Commander Adewole, Kyle Chandler as pilot Tom Mitchell, Demián Bichir as navigation specialist Sanchez and Tiffany Boone as Maya, the flight engineer.
Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo in the movie "The Midnight Sky". (Netflix)
At this point, the film essentially splits into two different stories - with the Aether crew desperately trying to figure out why they couldn't communicate with Earth and Augustine trying to contact them. When he realizes that the observatory's antenna is too weak to establish the connection, he decides to take Iris and take the snowmobile to a weather station further north.
The journey is suitably treacherous and features the most dynamic sequences in the film. It is so involved that it is easy to forget the plight of the ether, which, to be honest, is not all that compelling. Despite the strong cast and the fact that Sully is pregnant, this part of the story follows the path of countless unforgettable space dramas. By the time we return to Augustine and earth, “The Midnight Sky” has lost valuable dramatic impulses.
This is mainly because I lost touch with Augustine. Clooney is good at playing the reluctant hero, and easily slips into Augustine's shaggy beard and sickness-worn body. The emotional thawing that stems from his relationship with Iris, while completely predictable, is reflected deeply in the face of his character. Unfortunately, that connection is sacrificed for the time spent on board the Aether - a narrative imperative that is essential for the film to reach its insane ending.
There were promising results in "The Midnight Sky". Augustine's Odyssey had great potential. The work that intrigued him so much that he sacrificed everything else can be seen, but we only hear snippets of why it was so important. The film's themes, extinction and survival, deserve careful treatment, which the ambitious film escapes as it succumbs to a schematic and sentimental narrative that transcends a grand gesture and obscures the more telling ideas.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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