'The Midnight Sky': Film Review

THE MIDNIGHT SKY
NETFLIX

Caoilinn Springall and George Clooney in 'The Midnight Sky'

Existential dread with light from a far-off galaxy.
12/9/2020

George Clooney directs and heads the cast of Netflix's postapocalyptic sci-fi survival drama about the environmental collapse of Earth and new hope for humanity in space, also starring Felicity Jones.

While exploring deep space as an actor in Solaris and Gravity, George Clooney presumably was also a close observer of how two top directors, Steven Soderbergh and Alfonso Cuarón, respectively, handled the challenges of sci-fi for grownups. Judging by the distinctive design elements of Netflix's The Midnight Sky, he also appears to have absorbed lessons from Tomorrowland, not letting busy CG fakery supplant solid storytelling. Bringing Lily Brooks-Dalton's 2016 debut novel, Good Morning, Midnight, to the screen, Clooney pulls off a considerable leap in scope from his previous behind-the-camera projects while also transitioning in the lead role from matinee-idol charmer to weathered veteran, playing a visionary astronomer with a heavy heart.

Shifting with grace and narrative equilibrium between the Arctic and a mission returning from Jupiter, this is a desolate elegy for a diseased planet and a prayer for the creation of life elsewhere in the universe. Flanked by a strong supporting cast, Clooney delivers a thoughtful reflection on the toll of environmental devastation. It won't replace Good Night, and Good Luck as his best directorial effort, but this quiet, meditative new film is emotionally involving from tense start to poignant finish.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith, who demonstrated a feel for inhospitable terrain in The Revenant, takes his cue from the novel by depicting the end of the world not as a violent cataclysm but as a stunned fait accompli. He opens with the residents of Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle being evacuated by helicopter in 2049, three weeks after "the event." It's later revealed that they've been transported to underground shelters. But lone holdout Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), who requires regular blood transfusions for what appears to be a terminal illness, believes none of them will last long.

Sporting a bushy gray beard that looks like it's stiff with ice even before it actually gets that way, Clooney's rueful Augustine wanders around the deserted compound thinking back on his years as a young astronomer (played by Ethan Peck) in flashback scenes that are the movie's weakest element. At a conference where he expounds on early evidence that Jupiter's previously undiscovered moon, K-23, appears to have suitable conditions to support human life, he met and became involved with fellow scientist Jean (Sophie Rundle). Returning to 2049, he's haunted by regrets over being too consumed by his work to sustain a relationship and is feeling the stress of isolation when he finds a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) mysteriously left behind by the evacuees. She doesn't speak, but draws a picture to illustrate her name, Iris.

The flower reference, a delicate symbol of life on a planet gone dark, recurs more than once in the film, notably in the intricate design of Aether, a spacecraft returning from a two-year exploratory trip to K-23 that has lost contact with Mission Control. Desperate to alert the crew not to return to global catastrophe on Earth, where the unbreathable air will eventually contaminate the Arctic, Augustine takes Iris and travels north by snowmobile through harsh conditions to a weather station with a stronger communications satellite.

The elemental thriller unfolding on Earth meshes fluidly in Stephen Mirrione's edit with the tension of the small crew aboard the Aether, where mission specialist Sully (Felicity Jones) drifts in and out of contact with Augustine. The Aether is captained by Ade (David Oyelowo) and piloted by veteran flier Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), with Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Maya (Tiffany Boone) rounding out the crew. In addition to NASA, they have lost contact with a separate colony flight.

The loneliness of space travel is shown in lovely interludes where Mitchell shares his breakfast time with holograms of his wife and kids, while the younger Maya chills with flickering images of her sister and college friend. There's also a sweet running thread where the crew keep suggesting names for the baby that Sully and Ade are expecting, with Mitchell continuing the flower motif by pushing for his mother's name, Hyacinth. Chandler's easygoing masculinity is offset by his character's introspective side. Mitchell is a career explorer but also profoundly homesick; there's a moment of lingering melancholy when he talks about his risk discussions with his wife, in which they had always assumed the gravest dangers would be in space.

The film's most gripping set-piece involves Sully, Ade and first-timer Maya taking a walk out into space to repair damage to the radar following a meteor shower. The ship's exterior, with its dandelion-like communications dishes on stems, matches the webbed interior, giving the entire vessel a quite beautiful, almost organic look for an artificial environment, captured in all its majesty by DP Martin Ruhe, who worked with Clooney on Catch-22 and The American. The problems that occur due to further meteor activity during the repairs lead to a wrenching tragedy that plays out with striking visual impact in zero gravity.

There are well-handled suspenseful passages in the Arctic, too, with characters in both locations fighting for survival. And if Alexandre Desplat's rich orchestral score often leans too hard on the heart-tugging sentiment, its surging power in dramatic moments is undeniable. The movie is marbled with deep veins of sorrow, conveying a pervasive sense of loss. But it also has a soothing, poetic side, notably in the rapturous descriptions of the new planet that Sully shares with Augustine when communications are restored.

Even those unfamiliar with the novel will see some of the final-act turns coming, and the way in which Iris is introduced telegraphs revelations about the girl's character almost from the start. But none of that lessens the emotional effectiveness of the atmospheric film's conclusion or takes anything away from its uniformly strong cast, all of them giving performances notable for their restraint. Clooney, looking craggy and aged, is very much the soul of the piece, playing a burdened man grieving over the ravaged state of the world, his body and possibly his mind failing him yet still battling to make a difference the only way he can.

Sci-fi fanboys will no doubt find The Midnight Sky too solemn, and its echoes of movies like Interstellar, The Martian and Ad Astra don't always play in its favor. But others will respond to its contemplative maturity. Clooney tips his hat to a vintage inspiration by catching Mitchell watching the closing scene of Stanley Kramer's On the Beach. The director and writers here clearly are pondering the fate of a wounded planet in ways that glance back to that 1959 atomic aftermath drama, nurturing hope for humanity despite the grim outlook.

Production companies: Smokehouse, Anonymous Content
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone,
Demián
Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: Mark L. Smith, based on the novel
Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Keith Redmon, Bard Dorros, Cliff Roberts
Executive producers: Barbara A. Hall, Todd Shuster, Jennifer Gates, Greg Baxter
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Production designer: Jim Bissell

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Kasmir
Casting: Rachel Tenner
Rated PG-13, 118 minutes