The Midnight Sky review: George Clooney’s space drama is beautiful but generic

The director and star may perfectly capture the mood of existential dread, he struggles to vocalise quite where it stems from

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 23 December 2020 06:34 GMT
Midnight Sky trailer

Dir: George Clooney. Featuring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler.12, 118 mins

Cinema is full of stories of space dads and star-bound mothers, propelled into a confrontation with their own impermanence. It was Brad Pitt’s burden in last year’s Ad Astra; Eva Green’s in this year’s Proxima. Now, the weight falls on George Clooney, who directs and stars in Netflix’s The Midnight Sky – his first film since 2017’s lacklustre satire Suburbicon, and his first onscreen appearance since 2016’s Money Monster

But while Clooney may perfectly capture the mood of existential dread, he struggles to vocalise quite where it stems from. At times, he even seems lost for words. So does the little girl (Caoilinn Springall) who Clooney’s Augustine Lofthouse finds hiding out in the Arctic Circle’s Barbeau Observatory, sleeping in storage lockers and stealing scraps from the canteen. She never has anything to say, but watches him with wide, quizzical eyes. The year is 2049. Everyone else has evacuated, fleeing an unknown threat. Augustine, weakened by terminal illness, has chosen to stay behind.

He’s already settled into his isolation routine – he drinks whisky and wanders aimlessly around a modernist, open plan office. He sits at a dialysis machine. Then he moves to the bank of monitors, which scan periodically for any signs of life. Clooney looks gaunt, his face half-swallowed up by his beard. It’s a performance of quiet, studied dignity, a sign that the actor has perhaps moved past the cocksure opportunists that have shaped so much of his career. This also happens to be his fourth trip to the cosmos, after Solaris (2002), Gravity (2013), and the swiftly forgotten Tomorrowland (2015).

Mark L Smith’s script, which adapts Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, unnecessarily disrupts the quiet with a series of flashbacks, where Augustine is played by Ethan Peck (though his voice is blended in with Clooney’s own distinctive drawl). A woman (Sophie Rundle) stands behind him and, with saintly tears, declares: “Your own life is just slipping away.” He never turns around or tears his eyes away from his work – it’s a maudlin parody of the neglectful, career-obsessed boyfriend.

Augustine’s living tomb is disrupted not only by the strange girl, but by the realisation that a lone spaceship, the Aether, has yet to return from its mission. He must warn them of what’s happened to their home – of the radiation, from some unspoken apocalypse, that’s now leaking from every corner of the globe. And so he packs his transfusion kit and brings the child. He heads to another tower with a more powerful signal.

Sully (Felicity Jones) and Gordon Adewole (David Oyelowo) are both stationed on the Aether, which has yet to return from its mission  (Netflix)

The Midnight Sky looks beautiful – lone figures cut into the blanket white of a snowstorm, while wolves pick at the bones of a dead civilisation. In the Aether, four astronauts live in practised harmony: Sully (Felicity Jones), Gordon Adewole (David Oyelowo), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir). Jones’s real-life pregnancy was worked into the script, so the crew now act as a de facto family, arguing over baby names and kicking off singalongs. Their surroundings are striking, too – a web of organic shapes created out of inorganic materials, with sprawling vines made out of 3D-printed plastic, though the chairs look like they were grabbed from the nearest Ikea.

But once the stakes are established, the film struggles to fill the rest of its time. Any obstacles presented by Smith’s script seem generic – fracturing ice, an asteroid field, a treacherous spacewalk. Perhaps there’s only so much time that can be spent pondering one’s own progeny. The rest of The Midnight Sky is just dead air. 

The Midnight Sky is available to stream on Netflix from 23 December

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