Released 2020. Director: George Clooney
GEORGE CLOONEY IS AT HIS BEST AS A DIRECTOR WHEN THE MOVIE is grounded in a strong socio-political foundation, such as Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March. When there’s a clear enemy, whether it’s a person, such as Joseph McCarthy, or an idea, such as moral corruption, Clooney shapes the story to make you think and question. He may even enrage you a little bit with righteous indignation. When it comes to directing a sci-fi, the expectations are different and The Midnight Sky shows that Clooney hasn’t transfer the same set of directorial skills to a different genre.
Clooney also takes on the starring role in this movie as Augustine, a scientist left to operate an observatory in the Arctic all by himself. Three weeks prior, some cataclysmic event has wiped out much of the population and rendered the Earth basically uninhabitable, driving what’s left of the human race underground. The small community in the Arctic evacuated, leaving only Augustine behind to turn off the lights when the time comes. What’s implied here is Augustine is all alone in life; he has no one to go back home to.
Days later, Augustine is surprised to find a little girl Iris who appeared to have been left behind. Never afraid and also never speaking a word, Iris takes to Augustine immediately. The last man on the surface of the Earth now finds himself the unexpected responsibility as a dad.
Indeed, that’s what The Midnight Sky turns out to be, a contemplation on fatherhood, or rather, a man’s experience of his own absent fatherhood. But this is no time to wallow in sentimental daddy business. Augustine receives communications from Aether, a NASA spacecraft on its way back to Earth, its crew unaware that there’s no home to return to.
Through the patchy reception, Augustine tries to relay the doomsday message to no avail. So he braves radiation and a blinding blizzard to cross the ice fields to a communication tower with a more powerful antenna, bringing Iris along on the hazardous trek. He could die. They both could die. Augustine falling through the ice in a collapsing cabin is a rare moment of suspense in an entire movie about impending death.
Meanwhile, the crew onboard Aether, played by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler and Tiffany Boone continue their journey home, oblivious of the danger until much, much later.
The inter-cutting between Augustine in the snow, the astronauts and a flashback to Augustine’s younger days may have contributed to the movie’s uneven rhythm. Editing is not the strong suit here. This is a high-stake race in a post-apocalypse warning to stay the hell away, yet there isn’t really much tension and urgency. This is more glaring whenever we see the astronauts going about their business in space. Even in an action-packed sequence when they’re pelted by space debris while doing repairs outside the ship, suspense is as thin as air in space. This is a scene reminiscent of another movie starring Clooney, Gravity, and it brings on an unfortunate comparison in the absence of fist-clenching anticipation that a situation like this demands.
Apart from the snowstorm no other scene really stands out. Visually this is a rather bland production despite the high-tech surroundings of the spaceship and the hollowed-out Arctic base, which would have made excellent set-pieces whether it’s to accentuate Augustine’s aloneness or the destruction of Earth versus the sophistication of a technologically-advanced craft.
The shortcomings wouldn’t have mattered as much if Clooney had made the story more interesting or drawn us closer to Augustine. The message of coming home, letting go, missed opportunities, regrets and redemption are heavy stuff that nonetheless floated away and don’t amount to much.
When the various elements of the story coalesce in the end it feels like a salvage job. The real connection between Augustine and Sully, the character played by Felicity Jones, is not a big mystery to an attentive audience. Their ‘meeting’ over radio communication at the end of the world is what some people might call fate. It’s also pretty contrived. The premise of a man realising what he’s missed out on and facing his last chance to connect comes across hackneyed. Clooney delivers a fine performance as an actor but the movie doesn’t touch the depth of emotions it could have.
The Midnight Sky strains to achieve an elegiac slow-burn, sadly it doesn’t have the sense of poetic mystery of Solaris, which Clooney quite clearly draws inspiration from; instead it is uneven and underwhelming.
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