Film Review: The Midnight Sky
The Midnight Sky
Director: George Clooney
Smoke House Pictures and Anonymous Content
In Theaters 12.11 and Steaming on Netflix 12.23
There’s a moment in Planes, Trains and Automobiles wherein Steve Martin remarks on the subject of storytelling: “Here’s a good idea: have a point.” That line is starting to feel more and more like it was meant for George Clooney.
I’ve been a fan since even before ER, back when he was the handyman on The Facts of Life, which really puts into perspective just how much of my life I’ve wasted watching television. As a director, Clooney got off to a very promising start with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and if anything, his sophomore effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, was almost to good in the sense that it created the impression that a truly great filmmaker had arrived and set expectations skyrocketing. But he’s had trouble finding true success since then, and if The Monuments Men was a bit of a stumble, Suburbicon was a pratfall down three flights of stairs where he somehow managed to land full force on both his head and his groin at the same time.
In The Midnight Sky, Clooney stars as Dr. Augustine Lofthouse, an astronomer living in the Arctic Circle in the year 2049, just after the earth has been devastated by a maddeningly vague catastrophic event. But when everyone else evacuates due to radiation, Augustine insists on staying behind in hopes of making contact with the Aether, a ship that is on its way home after studying the moons of Jupiter. Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his crew—which includes the pregnant communications officer, Sully (Felicity Jones)—are more than a bit preoccupied by their inability to reach mission control, and Augustine must travel through harsh conditions to reach an observatory with equipment powerful enough to reach the ship. But when he discovers an eight-year-old girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who appears to be the daughter of a scientist who somehow got left behind, he knows that he must keep her safe at all costs.
Clooney the actor is in fine form here, and, Springall is an adorable and endearing presence alongside him. When it’s just the two of them on screen together, the film had me hooked. Jones and Oyelowo are both good, though the characters are quite generic, and Kyle Chandler and Demián Bichir as other members of the crew, do have some nice moments. One scene where the crew spontaneously breaks into singing Neil Diamond‘s “Sweet Caroline” is particularly charming, and we needed more of these lighter moments.
The script by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) is problematic in terms of structure, and the film is relentlessly maudlin, yet too distant and detached to make you care much about these characters or anything that’s happening, even if it is the end of the world. It’s preoccupied with a ham-fisted and pretentious sense of self importance as it desperately tries to convince you that it’s being profound. But even at a time when its themes of isolation and desolation should feel so resonant, it just rambles on with little of value to say. Clooney is a master of subtlety as an actor, but when he’s behind the camera, at times it feels as if he doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
The Midnight Sky is nice enough to look at when following the crew of the Aether, though I did find some of the effects to be hokey and unconvincing, and there’s too much Star Trek and not enough The Martian. This is epitomized by a long take of Jones sitting at a starship console, clearly having been given the direction “just add lib and press buttons for a couple of minutes,” that felt so lazy that I actually sprained one of my eyes while rolling them. And the less said about the ponderous and intrusive flashback sequences, the better.
I was trying hard to go with this film until the very end, placing my trust in Clooney that it was all headed somewhere. That said, I’ll try not to spoil anything when I say that it’s officially time for Hollywood to have a summit meeting of writers and directors and sign something pledging that certain laughably overused plot twists can’t be recycled again for at least 20 years. Honestly, I could forgive many of my other complaints and dismiss some entirely, but as a longtime fan and supporter of Clooney’s work, this ending left me feeling both cheated and insulted.
The Midnight Sky is not without its strengths, and perhaps my expectations were too high, but it was hardly the Clooney comeback I had been waiting for, and it may be the biggest disappointment of the year. –Patrick Gibbs