Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY
Rated PG-13, 122 minutes
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall, Sophie Rundle
Despite the great success George Clooney has had in front of the camera as a dashing, charismatic leading man, he’s had a pretty dismal career as a director. Outside of GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK, his other offerings haven’t hit critically or commercially. At its best, THE MIDNIGHT SKY is a middling effort. It’s an unwieldy piece, suffering from difficulty connecting two separate narrative tracks into one cohesive picture. It’s clear he’s pulling inspiration from GRAVITY, THE MARTIAN, AD ASTRA and THE REVENANT, but few of those films’ strong qualities show up here. That combo of survivalist and space movie influences should be winning, yet here we are.
The emptiness within the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle feels cavernous. It’s February 2049, 3 weeks after “the event” (a.k.a. post-apocalypse). Earth’s atmosphere has become toxic and it’s only a matter of time before the region’s air will be infected too. While everyone else has abandoned the outpost in search of more viable living conditions, Astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), who’s suffering from an isolating terminal illness, has chosen to stay behind to man the station. He’s tracking the spaceship Aether, which is returning to Earth after a long mission to determine if human life can be sustained on Jupiter’s recently-discovered moon K-23. Aether’s crew is comprised of pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Mission Specialist Sullivan (Felicity Jones), Flight Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), and Communications Analysts Maya (Tiffany Boone) and Sanchez (Demián Bichir). They were on their way home when the cataclysmic event occurred, causing a three-week blackout in their communications with Mission Control. It’s only 12 more hours until Augustine can potentially make contact again to warn them of the dangers that await upon their return.
However, a few wrenches are thrown into Augustine and the Aether’s plans, threatening to send both off course. The Aether crew is challenged with the usual space-movie tropes like meteor showers, crew expendability and debating mission objectives. Back on Earth, mute child Iris (Caoilinn Springall) was accidentally left behind at the observatory, automatically becoming the aging astronomer’s charge. Augustine also must contend with daily transfusions to keep his illness at bay. In addition, his transmitter is too weak to reach the Aether, so his only option is to brave stormy, snowy conditions to reach a stronger antenna at a remote weather station. His lifelong quest to help man repopulate another planet may or may not happen in his lifetime.
Screenwriter Mark L. Smith’s adaptation – based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton – does a sufficient job extrapolating the book’s themes of isolation and connection, which reverberate throughout the narrative, aesthetics and soundscapes. Alexandre Desplat’s symphonic score feels expansive and emotionally robust. Martin Ruhe’s sparkling cinematography is crisp with its subtle, steely cool undertones. Jim Bissell’s chic, lean production design – especially on the sleek ergonomics inside the ship – gives the film a rich texture.
Since this is Clooney’s film, his character is the most developed. They delve into Augustine’s moral complexities, portraying him as someone who “saves the cat,” which in this case is the young laconic stranger, but also takes a life, compassionately killing a half-dead man. The fascinating dichotomies don’t end there. He’s an explorer whose quest is to ensure humans live on, but whose own life is passing him by. There’s a good relationship dynamic established between Augustine and the youngster so when their survivalist mission begins, we genuinely care and feel invested in their safety. The dinner scene where the pair flick peas back and forth at each other is cute, and also adds needed levity, as later there isn’t room for any. Attempts to do the same for the Aether astronauts, seeing them spend time in their personal hologram simulations, or engaging in a group sing-a-long to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” is an admirable way to endear them to us– though these situations feel more expected than delightful. They’re dealt short shrift when it comes to fleshing out their characters beyond one dimension.
Jumping back and forth between the two storylines – one set in space and the other on Earth – robs each of their momentum. Their connective tissue, which intertwines through emotional through-lines and survival scenarios faced by both Sullivan and Augustine, is fairly thin and doesn’t leave much room for profundity. While Augustine’s physical and psychological stakes are bestowed with a sense of pressing urgency and further character development, the crews’ travails play like an amalgam of generic scenarios seen in space films past. There are also a few flashbacks that augment Augustine’s backstory – those featuring his failed relationship with an ex-girlfriend (Sophie Rundle). Those too take away from the narrative propulsion, and worse, lead into a gimmicky twist.
Perhaps the worst thing about THE MIDNIGHT SKY is its unreached potential. Failing to leave the audience with much to ponder after the credits roll is one thing. Not delivering wholly engaging characters to tether them the story is another.
Grade: 2 out of 5
THE MIDNIGHT SKY begins streaming on Netflix on December 23.