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Review: The Midnight Sky Dully Spins Earth’s Demise into a Redemption Story

George Clooney’s film is a plodding and deeply unsatisfying genre exercise.

The Midnight Sky
Photo: Netflix

George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky opens with a series of stiffly composed shots of vaguely futuristic interiors that announces the film as a work of serious science fiction. The year is 2049 and the location is an Arctic research station, which, following a mysterious event that’s poisoned the Earth’s atmosphere, is seemingly empty of all human presence except for a gaunt, heavily bearded man with haunted eyes. A renowned astronomer, the improbably named Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) spends his lonely days and nights getting drunk on whiskey and giving himself blood transfusions as a means of coping with an undefined terminal illness. Then, one day, out of nowhere, he stumbles upon an adorable little moppet, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), in the observatory’s kitchen.

Iris is indicative of the film’s confused and plodding approach to storytelling. The viewer intuitively understands that she’s a figment of the man’s imagination, as she never speaks and obviously fills a psychological void within Augustine. She also has no plausible backstory to explain how she’s been living undetected in the same eerily silent facility as him. It would be a shocking twist if it turned out that she were real, and yet there’s zero indication that Clooney, as a director, understands that we know she’s a phantom, subjecting us to feeble moments of Augustine and Iris “bonding,” such as a tedious scene in which the old man and the little girl giddily flick peas at each other. Later, when Augustine and Iris are forced to trek across the frozen tundra to a communication outpost, Clooney asks us to become invested in the little girl’s survival, as if we truly believed she were a living, breathing human being.

If this story weren’t confused enough, the film—adapted by Mark L. Smith from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight—complicates matters by paralleling it with an even less compelling subplot set aboard a spacecraft that’s returning from an exploratory mission to a potentially habitable planet located within our solar system. The crew is made up of a quintet of competent astronauts who don’t seem to have ever had any personal or professional animus between them. And while The Midnight Sky is at its most exciting when the crew experiences a few of the usual tribulations of cinema’s spacefarers—a daring journey through an uncharted patch of space, a perilous EVA mission—these scenes are so disconnected from Augustine’s storyline that they sap what little momentum the film is able to squeeze out of the man’s quest to reach the communication outpost.

The Midnight Sky is an attractively shot film, with tasteful and, at moments, even beautiful visual effects and a haunting score courtesy of Alexandre Desplat. But the film is also a plodding and deeply unsatisfying genre exercise that’s largely absent of the things that can make science fiction so rich and gripping—namely, a novel hook and a sense of wonder. In the film’s final 20 minutes, Clooney gives us some glimpses of the work he was trying to make: a deeply felt evocation of the power of family, a bond so strong that it transcends even the ruination of Earth. But the film ultimately ties its various plot strands into an implausibly neat bow, minimizing the tragedy of the human race’s near-complete annihilation by positioning it as the backdrop for the world’s most grandiose deadbeat-dad redemption arc.

Cast: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall Director: George Clooney Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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