**1/2 out of ****
(for some bloody images and brief strong language)
Released: December 4, 2020 in select theaters; December 23 on Netflix
Runtime: 122 minutes
Directed by: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Caoilinn Springall, Ethan Peck, Sophie Rundle
In select theaters and streaming on Netflix
George Clooney may be the sexiest silver Fox since Cary Grant but as a filmmaker he’s not aging nearly as well. Continuing to digress rather than grow, Clooney’s directorial efforts continue to fall short of their laudable ambitions.
Having starred in high-minded sci-fi with Oscar-winning directors like Steven Soderbergh (Solaris) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), it’d seem likely (even natural) that Clooney would lean heavily into whatever he gleaned from those collaborations, especially when broaching his own heady space opera.
Instead, The Midnight Sky – a near-future global apocalypse about the last surviving scientist stranded on Antarctica and, concurrently, a team of astronauts in deep space on a mission to find a new inhabitable world – plays more like the heightened melodrama of ER, Clooney’s TV drama breakthrough. (That’s especially true of the film’s flashbacks.)
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that this was produced for TV streamer Netflix, although the vast visual scope (both galactic and terrestrial) is best experienced on the big screen – which I was able to do, thanks to its release in select theaters.
Despite Clooney’s admirable verisimilitude (which includes filming in blizzard conditions of actual snow-swept frozen tundra, rather than digitally approximating it, showing a level of commitment that few contemporary directors would likely dare), the strained dramaturgy of these twin, thin chamber pieces plays more like Emmy-grabbing Peak TV than vital cinema.
The weight of self-import and/or sentimentality permeates nearly every frame – tones that Clooney’s direction and Alexandre Desplat’s music reinforce with a heavy hand – and the weak script buckles underneath it all.
The characters are more constructs than people; the solid cast keeps them from being reduced to pure caricature. The roles are essentially stock, lacking dimension, in service of a pedestrian plot machine that ponders only the most routine existential questions within the most conventional conflicts and psychological struggles.
To that end, one could nitpick the various character threads and how banal they all are, but the best example is the stowaway girl hiding inside the Arctic scientific compound. Mute, she doesn’t communicate and barely emotes, making her quasi-human. She’s more of a cypher for Augustine (that’s Clooney) than a person, existing only as a reflection of him and a conduit for his thoughts, anxieties, and emotions.
It doesn’t take long before, as a viewer, you begin to doubt her existence at all, instead suspecting she may be a figment of Augustine’s troubled imagination, conjured to work out the challenges he’s facing. Everything he says to her is essentially what he needs to say to himself.
Whether that suspicion ends up being true or not is beside the point. The net effect is that the girl isn’t a genuinely realized person; she’s only a gimmick.
Meanwhile on the space station, the scenes are generally unremarkable episodes of familiar (even pat) human drama and ennui.
It’s easy to see what attracted Clooney to the material: the potential for spectacle. On that point, Clooney gets it right (well that and his performance, one where he physically carries the aged, grizzled burden of Augustine’s terminal illness and psychological strain).
Our introduction to the space station is a prime example of what works. It’s a patient and expansive tour, going around and through the interstellar structure. It’s a superbly mounted feat of visual effects moviemaking. Subsequent sequences match that grandeur, but the drama remains derivative; one “space walk gone awry” quickly jumps to mind.
But like The Midnight Sky (which feels like a short story padded to feature length), I’ve probably belabored the obvious. In short, the scale here is epic but the story’s a shrug.