Synopsis – This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine, a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
My Take – Being a fan, it surely came as good news when Oscar-winning on-screen charmer George Clooney announced his return to a feature film role after four years (his last role being in the very enjoyable thriller Money Monster), that is until the announcement continued with the worrying information that the Netflix backed feature would also mark his seventh directorial.
It is an unfortunate fact that, while actors transitioning to the director’s chair continues to be fairly common process, only few have continued to be as maddeningly inconsistent as Clooney. As outside of Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and to some extent, Ides of March (2011), his offerings haven’t found success either critically or commercially, despite admirable ambitions.
Hence it doesn’t come as a surprise that his latest endeavor, which adapts Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel Good Morning, Midnight, has a $100 million budget, and an impressive cast at disposal, yet boasts similar inconsistencies as it chokes on its ambitions. It isn’t a terrible film per say, it’s just extremely hollow, and at its best a middling effort. An unwieldy piece, suffering from difficulty connecting two separate narrative tracks into one cohesive film.
It’s clear he’s pulling inspiration from superior genre counterparts, but few of those films’ strong qualities show up here. Perhaps the worst thing about the film is its untapped potential. Failing to leave the audience with much to ponder after the credits roll is one thing, and not delivering wholly engaging characters to tether them the story is another.
In the end it just leaves you with a mixed feeling, as you cannot gloss over the reality it highlights, and yet the fantasy it weaves onto that reality is too tedious to make us feel thrilled.
Set in 2049, three weeks after a mysterious event wiped out most of life on Earth and left its atmosphere toxic, and with only a matter of time before the region’s air will be infected too. The story follows Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), an astronomer, who despite suffering from an isolating terminal illness, chooses to stay behind in his Arctic scientific-research station, as the remaining human race rushes to underground facilities in hope of more viable living conditions, and remains determined to continue tracking Aether, a spaceship which is returning to Earth after a long mission to determine if human life can be sustained on Jupiter’s recently-discovered moon K-23.
However, the K-23 crew which comprises of Dr. Iris “Sully” Sullivan (Felicity Jones), Flight Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), Pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Communications Analysts Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir), remain unaware of the conditions back home, as they have been under a three-week blackout in their communications with Mission Control.
And since Augustine needs a powerful antenna to communicate with them, he decides to set off on a perilous journey with Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a mute child who was accidentally left behind at the observatory, to reach a far-off base and warn them of the dangers that await upon their return.
The best elements take place in the opening portions of the film. As Augustine sees the encroaching cloud of radiation, he braves venturing toward the edge. Wildlife writhes and sputters in its final moments. Augustine’s prognosis is as dire as the planet, riddled with unforgiving cancer.
Here, as a director Clooney does impress with his well-constructed world-building, as he indulges in the film’s big-budget assets, constructing a dystopian landscape that still feels connected to our real-world plights. A mixture of sterile space facilities and barren landscapes further sells the character’s isolation as they search for personal solace amidst their warped realities. His opulent direction also impresses with the film’s tense action set pieces.
Unfortunately, Clooney‘s new self-starring directorial is also among his most unsure efforts ever as a filmmaker, and the least engaging. For a film that possesses all the right pieces, the story‘s narrative puzzle never flows as it should.
Somewhere, as the narrative loses focus after a starting off on a high, you are left disappointed not just because the film tells you civilization on the planet has ended by 2049, but because director Clooney‘s effort fails to craft a narrative interesting enough out of that situation. Even when the film grasps towards soaring heights, its well-meaning delivery never quite connects.
Though it draws from stock formulae of two commonplace genres of Hollywood mainstream, a spaceship adventure and a saga of survival, the way the situations play out, the 118 minutes runtime starts testing your patience.
Sure, some scenes are extremely engaging and nerve-wracking. But the jumping back and forth between the two story lines robs each of their momentum. Their connective tissue, which intertwines through emotional through-lines and survival scenarios faced by both Sullivan and Augustine, is fairly thin and doesn’t leave much room for intensity.
Making matters worse, the film focuses mostly on Augustine’s emotional awakening and neglects important aspects of the story. Too many scenes are devoted to his journey and inner struggle and this choice affects the narrative economy of the film.
There are also a few flashbacks that augment Augustine’s backstory – those featuring his failed relationship with an ex-girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle), that take away from the narrative propulsion, and worse, lead into a gimmicky twist. In the end, what should have been a race-against-time thriller becomes unnecessarily drawn out with long scenes of people overly explaining their feelings, and after a swift, punchy opening hour, the final half feels endless.
It doesn’t help that Alexandre Desplat‘s score lays it on thick with the sweet music at times, or an illogical ending to both stories that really leaves us with more questions, but no desire for more answers.
The performances are solid across the board. George Clooney is brilliant and shares excellent dynamic with Caoilinn Springall, while Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone and Kyle Chandler manage to elevate fairly one-note roles. In smaller roles, Sophie Rundle and Ethan Peck also bring in subdued performances. On the whole, ‘The Midnight Sky’ is a hollow space drama which despite well-meaning intentions is a real slog watch to the finish line.
Directed – George Clooney
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 118 minutes