In the ‘90s and 2000s, the thought of a year without a George Clooney movie was unthinkable. This expectation became especially true once he began directing piercing dramas, like the Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night, and Good Luck and the political thriller The Ides of March. Times have changed: The affable, dreamy movie star hasn’t actually acted in a film since 2016’s Money Monster. The last time he directed was the disappointing 2017 satire Suburbicon. During the current hiatus, Clooney married and started a family. It’s a decision that feels prescient considering the subject of his new Netflix film, The Midnight Sky.
Though set in the year 2049, the sci-fi drama isn’t part of some Blade Runner cinematic universe. A catastrophic event has made earth’s atmosphere unbreathable, leading humanity to resettle on the far-off planet K-23. Rather than traveling with the other evacuees, the weathered scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) secludes himself at the Arctic Circle’s Barbeau Observatory to cope with a terminal disease. Augustine spends his final days drinking whiskey while administrating life-extending blood transfusions. Three weeks into his stay, he discovers a quiet little girl who might have been forgotten by the evacuees. His problems are further compounded by the impending return of the space station Aether and its unaware crew to Earth. In hopes of averting another crisis, Augustine, while caring for the girl, races to warn the incoming crew of the planet’s dangers. The ticking clock makes The Midnight Sky a post-apocalyptic survivalist space film whose narrative is so overloaded that the emotional weight offers zero gravity.
Adapted by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight, much of Clooney’s film follows the mute Iris (Caoilinn Springall) and Augustine’s journey to a northern weather station. He and Iris trek across the unstable ice of the melting tundra, past dying birds sucking for oxygen and the wreckage of a doomed plane, toward an antenna they hope has the power to reach the Aether crew. The overbearing journey is accompanied by an overbearing score composed by the usually brilliant Alexandre Desplat. There’s a jump scare, for instance, which involves a double-hit from a cartoonish timpani that makes one of Augustine’s grisly discoveries accidentally comedic. The grotesque figure he unearths accomplishes the same effect, too.
Augustine’s relationship to Iris provides the narrative’s few pieces of measurable weight. Clooney plays a dying survivor as a man wracked by guilt. The feeling has sunken in — to the deep lines in his face, his salt-colored beard, and his hollow frame. Flashbacks to a younger ambitious Augustine (Ethan Peck) are meant to fill his backstory. He once had a woman (Sophie Rundle) who not only loved him, but wanted a family, too. The career-driven Augustine, however, pushes her and their daughter away. These scenes, especially one featuring a tearful sun-drenched Rundle decrying Augustine’s coldness, are mawkish at best and totally unnecessary at worst. Though Peck’s voice is a dead ringer for Clooney, his dispassionate characterization of Augustine runs counter to the weathered yet still charming older man we see playing with Iris. No narrative through-line makes sense of why his personality changed. (Or his appearance for that matter — Peck looks nothing like Clooney.) Even so, in the silent Iris, the now-older Augustine maps his regret for the life not lived. For the family not had.
Smith intertwines Iris and Augustine’s forlorn earthbound journey with the Aether’s return from a survey mission. Two years ago they left home to discover if K-23 might be habitable. Now they are returning to an inhospitable earth. The crew’s arc would be enough for its own film: Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) and second-in-command Sully (Felicity Jones) are expecting a daughter; Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and Maya (Tiffany Boone) pass the time by immersing themselves in their hologram memories of their respective families. And the caring Sanchez (Demián Bichir), who has little to chew on, lifts up his comrades’ morale. The crew’s familiar dynamics offer dialogue-heavy banter that’s tonally jarring from the desperate wordless mood of Augustine’s journey. And in the final stretch, the crew’s storyline dominates the action.
Clooney finds his most suspenseful moments away from his home planet. For one, to return to Earth, the crew must chart a path through an unmapped meteor field. The trail leaves them open to the danger of collisions, a scenario not unlike the situation in Gravity, capable of disintegrating portions of the space station into high-speed debris. The clarity of the stars and galaxies, seen best during a chaotic space walk scene, are gorgeous VFX sequences worthy of a big screen — one that our tumultuous year couldn’t afford Clooney. A bloody tragedy outside the station later in the film leads to one of the best death scenes involving cinematic weightlessness. But the momentum injected by the space odyssey isn’t enough to cover for the languid unfocused energy of the prior 90 minutes or the final destination.
The Midnight Sky has two compelling stories: An intergalactic race through the harsh unknown and the smaller journey for Augustine, which demonstrates how even a lasting legacy doesn’t make up for a life misspent. Clooney struggles to choose between The Midnight Sky being a survivalist post-apocalyptic film or a space flick. So he doesn’t choose, and the narratives overshadow one another. As strong as he is as a performer, Clooney translates Augustine’s regret into a quiet performance that’s far too subtle. It’s a disappointment, even more so when the subject, an older man wanting a family later in life, is considered as something the actor-director may have identified with. In the end, The Midnight Sky doesn’t match Clooney’s past directorial highs. Worse, the film barely reaches the lower atmosphere.