In a year in which everything feels like a stripped-down, streaming-only release, George Clooney returns with, arguably, his most ambitious film yet. Clooney’s output as a director has varied widely, from critically acclaimed successes (2002’s Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, from a script by Charlie Kaufman) to execrable screwball (Leatherheads in 2008, Monuments Men in 2014). Yet his movies thus far have all been, to some extent, the kinds of movies you expect an actor to direct — ensemble pieces, heavy on the hijinks and earnest monologues. Things that a “George Clooney type” might be good at, say.
In The Midnight Sky, adapted from the novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Clooney gives us something much closer to Gravity or Interstellar: emotional sci-fi, in which thrilling space action meets mournful family drama. About the worst you could say about Midnight Sky is that it’s derivative of some of the past decade’s glut of space dramas — the aforementioned, plus First Man, Ad Astra, The Martian, Lucy In The Sky, Arrival, the show Away, etc. No one goes to space without at least one broken promise to a child on their mind, it seems (usually a dead child).
All that being said, controversial take warning: there should be more space movies. Much like submarine movies, I will take your poorly plotted, your tired, your muddled space movies, yearning to seem deep; more is still better. One could do a lot worse than a “just okay” space movie, and George Clooney’s previous output as a director mostly bears that out.
The Midnight Sky opens in 2049, three weeks after “the event,” according to the title cards. I’m fairly certain another dystopian movie has already used those exact words to yadda yadda the cataclysm it was also set in the aftermath of, but I don’t remember which. In any case, our protagonist is George Clooney, hidden underneath a woolly grey beard and hacking up hairballs to telegraph a terminal disease (characters in movies almost never conspicuously cough except as a way to communicate a portentous disease). While the rest of humanity has packed off to underground bases somewhere, Clooney’s character, who we eventually find out is a scientist named Augustine Lofthouse, has stayed behind at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle.
We gather that he’s in this observatory all alone, having chosen to stay behind to keep from dying from whatever illness he has. And in order to continue to monitor… the midnight sky (finish your drink). What’s out there? A spaceship called the Aether, returning to Earth from an expedition to a possibly-habitable moon of Jupiter, and out of contact long enough not to know about “the event” and the world becoming an uninhabitable sewer. Aboard the ship are a murderer’s row of marvelous actors we all expect from a Clooney movie, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demian Bichir, Coach Taylor, and Tiffany Boone, playing a cabal of unrealistically good-looking astronauts.
At least, Augustine thinks he’s all alone. He’s soon joined by a stowaway, a mute seven or eight-year-old girl, who always seems curiously well-groomed for a child who has supposedly been without an adult guardian for weeks. And so, all of the story elements are in place. Someone needs to contact the Aether and tell them to turn back, but the only people on Earth in a position to do so are a terminally-ill mountain man and a girl who apparently can’t speak.
One could argue that perhaps some of the ensuing action set pieces are distinctly reminiscent of other movies, especially Gravity, but the derivativeness of them doesn’t make them any less exciting. Clooney gives the space action (and the Earth action) drama and suspense, as well as punch, something even seasoned action directors often fail to do.
Many of The Midnight Sky‘s plot contrivances are transparently contrivances, in that distinctly Hollywood way. But they’re never in service of the usual, saccharine Hollywood feel-good. The Midnight Sky is much more melancholy than that. And even if the Sad Childless Astronaut is something of an overdone trope at this point, you still have to give The Midnight Sky credit for its execution. Terminally-ill-scientist-and-his-mute-sidekick-on-an-arctic-outpost-trying-to-warn-a-spaceship-away-from-a-ruined-Earth is a pretty clever premise. If you’re going to contrive, contrive well.
In the end, how much you come away enjoying The Midnight Sky will probably come down to how much the final twist makes you groan. While The Midnight Sky‘s final reveal is not a movie-justifying revelation on the level of, say “Verbal Kint was Keyser Soze” or “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time,” it is reasonably surprising and holds up as believable in retrospect (which is to say, it doesn’t “cheat”).
Admittedly, it also doesn’t make the movie better or feel all that necessary. In that sense, I suppose its final twist is more like “Edward Norton was Tyler Durden the whole time.” I.e., a twist that doesn’t really add much and leaves you on a slightly sour note but doesn’t ruin the otherwise good movie that came before it.
However you slice it, The Midnight Sky is still a hell of a lot better than Monuments Men.