With "Midnight Sky," George Clooney directs a visually arresting post-apocalyptic yawnfest
George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in "The Midnight Sky"
George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in "The Midnight Sky" Netflix
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"The Midnight Sky" begins with Augustine (George Clooney) in a sterile environment - the Barbeau Observatory on the Arctic Circle. It is February 2049, three weeks after "the incident," and he is alone, monitoring the spaceship Aether. The crew are returning home after a two year mission to see if planet K23 "would be our future". (Things didn't go as planned).
However, when Aether crew member Sully (Felicity Jones) cannot contact NASA and the ship deviates from course, Augustine decides to hike over frozen tundra to a weather station to re-establish contact, as planet Earth is just like Augustine says to Sully: "We didn't care when you were gone."
This story, based on Lily Brooks-Dalton's book Good Morning, Midnight, could be an interesting take on this apocalyptic scenario. But Clooney, who is directing here, does not generate a pulse or a point. His film has a bit of a visual flair, but too few emotionally appealing moments. "The Midnight Sky" is mostly a boring affair.
One of the problems is that Augustine is more interesting than the story he is in. Flashbacks show him as a bright young scientist (Ethan Peck) who sabotaged his relationship with a woman he loved (Sophie Rundel). This may be why he's a loner now, taking pills with whiskey, getting blood transfusions, and vomiting every night.
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But the plot makes him realize that he is not alone. A young mute girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has been hiding in the observatory. He shows her where to sleep, but she comes and stays in his room. She tosses him peas during dinner to get his attention, and eventually she laughs. c.
The (in) action on the ether is just a little more exciting. Sully is pregnant by Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo), and there is endless, non-amusing jokes among crew members - Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and Maya (Tiffany Boone) - about what to name the child.
"The Midnight Sky" has some awesome CGI, and a 3-D map Augustine consults shows some nifty technology and the "virtual" experiences Mitchell and Maya had with their families.
However, the film doesn't come to life until after a post-spacewalk sequence late in the film, when a character is injured and blood is swimming in the weightless atmosphere. (Another great picture). Unfortunately, this episode, which creates a real drama, comes after a painful chant to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline", which most viewers find "charming". (Can there be a moratorium on the use of this catchy tune in the cinema, please?)
Unfortunately, a good part of the first half of the film shows Augustine and Iris' arduous hike through the arctic tundra, and it is not tense, but rather sleep-inducing. There is an odd scene where Augustine faces a dying man and a surreal moment where a safe place for protection proves otherwise. But these set pieces are not very convincing. Yes, there will be a beautiful underwater sequence at some point, but viewers can focus on the cold, wintry atmosphere and wonder why Augustine and Iris aren't wearing face shields. A succession of them lost in the wind and snow and unable to see each other is surprisingly little cause for concern, even when an animal's shadow suggests danger.
Mark L. Smith's script doesn't really flesh out the characters very much, although the dialogue is quite didactic at times. Any discussion by the Aether crew about hurling back into space is so familiar it's eyerolling. Likewise, it is expected what will happen if Maya becomes concerned about her first spacewalk.
Equally bad is Alexandre Desplat's music, which is often intrusive and used in the poignant or intense moments to tell viewers what to feel.
The narrative drawbacks of the film suggest that Clooney is less safe as a director here. He does a decent job as a man haunted by his past. So it's not like he can't connect to the material. But the film doesn't give the other actors much to do. Jones, Oyelowo, and Bichir all appear to be wasted and doing distinctive work. Watching Sully and Tom play cards is a highlight because the two actors are trying to create some chemistry. Late in the film, Sanchez makes a decision that comes almost out of nowhere until he explains himself didactically and then feels compelled.
"The Midnight Sky" creates a beautiful, sentimental moment - an unusually soulful exchange between Augustine and Sully - but Clooney almost coincidentally builds on it. Still, it shows what this lackluster film could have been.
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"The Midnight Sky" can be streamed on Netflix starting Wednesday, December 23rd.
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