Marking his seventh feature as a director, George Clooney enters what I would consider his first foray into genre filmmaking with The Midnight Sky, based on author Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight, about an aging, sickly astronomer whose entire life has been consumed by the stars and their potential to sustain human life. Clooney’s Augustine lives on a version of Earth about 30 years from now that appears to have been wiped clean of its inhabitants by an apocalyptic event of unknown origin—manmade or natural, global warming or nuclear accident, or perhaps a pandemic? He may be the last remaining soul on the planet simply because he’s presently living in an Arctic scientific outpost with a cancer that’s slowly eating away at his body.
We learn that Augustine has lived in such outposts for decades, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began because he has anticipated that the Earth would not sustain life for much longer. But the world was caught off guard in the middle of humanity’s search for another home. All of the other scientists at the outpost have left to be with their loved ones, but Augustine has no one—a truth that haunts him and is explored in a series of flashbacks to Augustine as a younger man (where he is played by Ethan Peck, the grandson of actor Gregory).
The other half of the story involves the spacecraft Aether, returning to earth after a four-year mission to Jupiter where it explored a possibly inhabitable moon that was meant to be humanity’s last hope. But the crew—composed of Felicity Jones as Sully, David Oyelowo as Adewole, Kyle Chandler as Mitchell, Damian Bichir as Sanchez, and Tiffany Boone as Maya—doesn’t know that it’s too late to come back. When Aether loses contact with Mission Control, they assume it’s a communications problem, not realizing there is simply no one left alive to respond, and they begin to wonder if they will ever get home. But when Augustine intercepts a stray communication from Aether, he begins a mad scramble to reach out and warn them not to land on Earth. Realizing the outpost’s satellite isn’t strong enough to send a proper signal, he decides to traverse the many miles to the next nearest outpost with a stronger dish, across the brutal environs of the Arctic Circle.
Not that further complications were required, but at some point before he departs on what is most assuredly a suicide mission, Augustine discovers a small child who hid away while the others were leaving. The young girl named Iris (newcomer Caoilinn Springall) either can’t or won’t speak, but she looks to him as her de facto guardian, and her presence makes the journey to the second outpost all the more treacherous. For much of the film, filmmaker Clooney (Good Night, and Goodluck; The Ides of March) simply cuts between these two dissimilar stories. The scenes in the Arctic are harsh, raw, isolating, and washed out in either white or complete darkness, with very little dialogue (the screenplay is by Mark L. Smith, who also adapted The Revenant). The scenes on the spacecraft feel crisp, clear and professional but also jovial and familial, which is underscored by Sully’s pregnancy (although her condition never becomes a central plot point or a burden to the mission). That being said, both settings seem to have a veil of loneliness across them.
When the two worlds begin communicating, the film opens up in several ways, with Augustine and Sully sharing information, and the crew having to come to terms with the prospect of never setting foot on Earth again. But there are also moments that seem less convincing or necessary, including an extended space walk scene that happens after the ship crosses paths with a meteor shower (not unlike Gravity), which results in a visually impressive and slightly horrifying moment when one of the crew is wounded by debris. The film has a tendency to move at its own pace, so this sequence feels like Clooney wanted to inject the story with a shot of adrenaline.
For the most part, however, I was won over by the relationships, both on Aether and even the strange surrogate father-daughter one between Augustine and Iris, which features its own travails as they cross ice, snow and wind (and brave a wolf attack) to reach the second outpost. In a large scope, The Midnight Sky poses big-picture questions about how to make sense of our lives while staring directly at the end of existence, as well as smaller struggles about a man seeking personal redemption by reaching out to a crew of astronauts before it’s too late to turn back. On screen, Clooney is especially effective (in his first on-screen acting role since 2016’s Money Monster), turning his natural charm completely off and existing as a brooding, mission-driven loner who sees something hopeful in the eyes of this silent little girl whom he thinks he can somehow save. There are a couple somewhat pointless final-hour twists that I could have done without, but they weren’t enough to destroy this atmospheric and moving work.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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