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Film Review: “The Midnight Sky” Never Shines

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 23rd, 2020

Film poster: “The Midnight Sky”

The Midnight Sky (George Clooney, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.

Mixing global disaster with space travel is nothing new; consider Sunshine, WALL·E and Interstellar, to name but three such films from the 21st century alone. Director/star George Clooney (The Monuments Men) therefore has his work cut out for him with his latest, The Midnight Sky, to make it stand out on its own terms. Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 book Good Morning, Midnight, the movie tells the parallel tales of a dying astrophysicist stranded in the Arctic as one of the last living people on Earth and a spaceship returrning from an expedition to a moon of Jupiter that might sustain human life. While our planet expires, the astronauts could be the last hope for our species. If that conceit sounds interesting, rest assured that, as executed here, it really isn’t.

Clooney is in full gruff-old-man mode as Augustine, adorned with a giant grey Moses beard and shuffling through his painful paces, some kind of cancer eating away at his insides. He self-administers chemo in an abandoned far-north observatory, everyone else having decamped to sure-fire deaths further south (why not just stay?). He is all alone, a solitary sentinel sending plaintive communiqués into the cosmos, trying to warn the returning vessel to stay away from home. But then one day he finds out that he is not, in fact, by himself, as a little girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has somehow managed to stay behind, as well.

George Clooney in THE MIDNIGHT SKY. Cr. Philippe Antonello @NETFLIX

Meanwhile, up in space, on the Aether, a crew of five has no idea what has happened in the last three weeks (the “event,” as an onscreen title labels it). Nor do we, for that matter, but that’s less important than the simple fact that the air on Earth is rapidly becoming toxic. The crew is made up of the captain, Adewole (David Oyelowo, Don’t Let Go), and four specialists of various kinds: Sully (Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts), Maya (Tiffany Boone, Feed), Sanchez (Demián Bichir, The Nun) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler, Game Night). Adewole (or “Ade,” for short) and Sully are in a relationship, and she is pregnant (not to judge, but is this a wise choice for a space mission?). They all enjoy each other’s company, but are nevertheless happy to return and bring good news: that moon, K-23, is extremely habitable. If only there were anyone left to move there.

Intercut with these two converging narratives are a series of flashbacks that show the young Augustine and the woman who would become mother to his child. As a promising up-and-comer, Augustine argued for the exact K-23 scenario that has now come to pass. At least he has lived long enough to be validated, though how long he will continue to survive remains in doubt.

l-r: Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo in THE MIDNIGHT SKY. Cr. Philippe Antonello @NETFLIX

There is quite a lot of story up on screen, and paradoxically also very little. We both spend a good deal of time with our multiple protagonists and not enough to understand their sometimes questionable actions. Augustine and Iris struggle to make it to a better satellite so they can broadcast a stronger signal; the Aether crew battle meteors and then make repairs. Everyone mopes, and who can blame them? The end of the world is a gloomy thing, indeed.

Unfortunately, gloom and doom do not a compelling scenario always make, and here the heightened stakes collapse under the maudlin melodrama. There is a plot reveal at the end that we see coming from long before (those flashbacks give the game away), and so the grand finale feels telegraphed from far away. When the conclusion finally arrives, we can but shrug. That was it? I guess we go out with a wimper.

l-r: Demian Bichir and Tiffany Boone. Cr. Philippe Antonello @NETFLIX
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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