- The Midnight Sky
- Directed by George Clooney
- Written by Mark L. Smith, based on the novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton
- Starring George Clooney, Felicity Jones and Caoilinn Springall
- Classification PG; 122 minutes
I love George Clooney, the actor. Suave, charming, captivating and always, always convincing, the man has a way of filling out a screen. He meets the challenges offered to him by choice collaborators (Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers) and elevates material that would otherwise be disposable (Money Monster, The Perfect Storm). He even makes Nespresso seem like a good choice for this coffee teetotaller.
George Clooney, the director, is another story. The guy is obviously trying, but there hasn’t yet been a directed-by-Clooney movie that works. He came closest with 2005′s ultra-serious Edward R. Murrow drama Good Night, and Good Luck, though maybe that’s just the newsman nostalgia in me talking. Otherwise, does anyone have fond memories, or memories at all, of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Leatherheads, The Ides of March, The Monuments Men or (shudder) Suburbicon? A film by Clooney is a film overflowing with ambition, but often in search of vision, depth and imagination.
I don’t mean to knock a guy for persistence. But what other filmmakers could offer such a checkered IMDb profile and still continue to wrangle marquee stars and high-profile budgets and glowing what-he-really-wants-to-do-is-direct profiles? I get it, I do. But the realities of the Hollywood ecosystem don’t comfort against the experience of watching Clooney’s latest.
The Midnight Sky starts off decently, though. Adapting Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight with screenwriter Mark L. Smith, Clooney initially delivers a compelling piece of unrelenting sombreness.
Thanks to some unspecified calamity, the movie opens with the end of the world. While the planet’s few remaining souls seek temporary shelter underground, gruff scientist Augustine (Clooney) decides to spend the rest of his days in the remote Arctic outpost he’s been stationed at for who knows how long.
But just when he’s ready to say goodbye to everything, he notices that the spaceship Aether is heading back to Earth, after successfully finding an inhabitable world in the universe’s margins. But should Aether touch down in our orbit, humanity’s last best hope for survival will be doomed. And so begins a desperate race to warn the Aether’s crew, which includes the pregnant astronaut Sully (Felicity Jones), before it’s too late.
Oh, also: Augustine is stuck watching over a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a mute stowaway who decided she was better in the Arctic than taking off on the last chopper out with her scientist mother.
So far, so emotionally manipulative. How is Augustine going to save the Aether? What is going to happen to him and Iris in the cold of the Arctic? It helps, or maybe it doesn’t, that Augustine is also carrying a lot of emotional baggage, doled out in discombobulating flashbacks in which our hero is played by the young actor Ethan Peck, yet still voiced by Clooney. (Somebody really didn’t like the de-aging job that Martin Scorsese attempted in The Irishman.)
Here’s the knot of The Midnight Sky: Clooney is quite good as Augustine. Exhausted and weathered by the world’s end, Clooney’s hero is a few steps removed from his usual smooth-talker, and it is consistently interesting to watch the actor find something to grab hold of in a character surrounded by doom.
But the film itself is a tricky thing to discuss. Mostly because – pseudo-spoiler warning! – the entirety of The Midnight Sky hinges on a late-game development. Audiences will likely have one of three reactions: You’ll appreciate the confidence of the pivot; you’ll have already figured it out long before it arrives; or you’ll throw your hands up in what-the-heck frustration. I was in the third camp and left The Midnight Sky so angry (maybe at myself for failing to realize what was going on) that I momentarily forgot what I was supposed to be most upset about in this world. In that way, I suppose that the film’s apocalypse does provide a good distraction to the one raging outside our own doors.
From a technical standpoint, this might be Clooney’s finest work as a director. He handles the perilous Arctic adventures well, and the scenes aboard the Aether have a pleasant rhythm to them, even though he’s clearly working on a budget far less than that of, say, his Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron. But as a storyteller, The Midnight Sky is an irritating experience.
My advice: seek higher ground. Like Michael Clayton or O Brother Where Art Thou or anything else starring, but not directed by, George Clooney.
The Midnight Sky is available to stream on Netflix starting Dec. 23.
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