Movie Review: ‘The Midnight Sky’ is a Futuristic Drama Filled With Tropes
Director: George Clooney
Writer: Mark L. Smith
Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall
Synopsis: A scientist alone in the Arctic Circle must contact a crew of astronauts on their way home during a global catastrophe
If there is a type of film that I always find intriguing at the very least, it’s the introspective space drama. In the last decade, we’ve been treated to spectacles such as Gravity, First Man, and Ad Astra that are not only visually striking, but dive into personal explorations of their characters. That’s why I was drawn to the new Netflix film The Midnight Sky, starring and directed by George Clooney. Unfortunately, rather than serving as another fascinating entry in the genre, the film spends its runtime sifting through recycled narrative clichés.
Clooney’s character is Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist whose goal is to find habitable structures in Earth’s solar system. The film, taking place primarily in 2049, indicates that he was responsible for locating K-23, a moon of Jupiter that may be able to support human life. However, after a crew is sent to explore the moon, a radiation pandemic wipes out most of Earth’s population and leaves Augustine ill, with time running out. Rather than evacuate Earth, he decides to remain on his isolated base in the Arctic. He spends his time trying to reach out to active space missions, with the goal of informing them not to return to the ruined Earth.
It is early in this period that a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) randomly arrives in Augustine’s research station. Assuming that she was accidentally left behind when others evacuated, Augustine unsuccessfully tries to communicate with the departees. Though she does not speak, Clooney learns through her drawings that her name is Iris, and the two have an almost immediate connection. Soon after, Augustine discovers that Æther, a space mission from K-23, is heading back to Earth. As a result, the primary conflict of the film is the journey of Augustine and Iris to find a strong enough signal to reach the spacecraft and warn the crew about the state of Earth.
Essentially, this film features two stories: the one that takes place with Augustine on Earth and the one that takes place aboard Æther. The former begins in an intriguing way, depicting the new everyday livelihood of Augustine, including a daily routine of dialysis to survive as long as he can. However, this quickly descends into a wandering collection of expected common plot points and reveals. The second story feels almost meaningless, with characters that are thinly developed and just not given the time they require.
Take, for example, a character (unnamed to avoid spoilers) who suffers a devastating injury while trying to repair a radar during an asteroid strike. The scene is played with heavy emotion, but it doesn’t work considering we barely knew the person before the incident. Even Sully (Felicity Jones), the character we are most meant to empathize with, comes off as forgettable leading up to a major reveal about her that feels completely unearned.
But of course, the character we should be most concerned with is Augustine. Clooney plays the role quite well, considering what he had to work with. Thus, the issue isn’t the acting but the directing. In addition to a loaded, derivative narrative, the film’s pacing doesn’t allow for much excitement from the viewer. Though the relationship between Augustine and Iris should be the emotional draw of the film, it feels more random than anything else. In an effort to make the relationship worthwhile, the film resorts to an underexplored backstory and an eye-rolling twist in the end of the film. It’s clear that this aspect of the story was not fleshed out the way it needed to be, considering we spend so much time on Æther in the late scenes of the film.
While the film struggles mightily by being built on tropes rather than an original, deeply personal narrative, there are some solid aspects here. The scenes in the Arctic and outside of the spacecraft are beautifully shot by cinematographer Martin Ruhe. And aside from a cartoonish use of green screen during a dream sequence on K-23, the visual effects are quite remarkable as well. Of course, Alexandre Desplat always delivers with the musical score, though at times it feels like more of a distraction than a cohesive part of the film. While the film isn’t a total loss based on these areas, the lack of a convincing narrative and a connection to the characters makes for a tough sit.