Look, I like George Clooney as an actor. I know this does not come off as a particularly profound nor controversial statement, but I do think he’s taken for granted – which I get is a weird thing to say about one of the most famous actors on Earth. But Clooney hasn’t stared in a movie since 2016’s Money Monster. Did anyone really notice? Obama was still the president the last time George Clooney was in a movie. I’m sure some people noticed – and Clooney has certainly been around – but I never saw the outcry for more George Clooney movies. Well, for what it’s worth, I noticed and I missed him. And the reason I said Clooney gets taken for granted is that people think of him as a kind of template “leading man” and miss the warmth and compassion and sly humor he brings to his roles. But it’s kind of nuts the last great Clooney starring role was now way back in 2011 with The Descendants. It’s like he starred in the box office disappointments The Monuments Men (which he also directed) Tomorrowland, Hail, Caesar! (a good movie!) and Money Monster and decided, eh, who needs it.
Clooney is back in The Midnight Sky, which he also directs, and, frankly, it’s an honorable effort, but I kind of wish Clooney hadn’t directed this time. There’s something that feels like it needed an extra oomph and with Clooney wearing so many hats in the production of this film, I kind of wish I could see what it looked like if all he was concerned about was his performance (hold this thought). And I honestly think Clooney is terrific here as a scientist in the near future named Augustine Lofthouse, one of two people left at an Arctic research station, which is now, temporarily (in a bad way), one of the last habitable places left on Earth after an unspecified disaster.
We spend time with Clooney’s Augustine, now sporting a Letterman-esque beard, and he fully captures the loneliness, staring out his window at the icy terrain, that feels all a bit too familiar to a lot of us these days. There’s a connection here that was appealing. It’s like, yes, here’s a character who gets it. A character that, eventually, has to put on a mask every time he goes outside or the air might kill him. I get it, Augustine. He’s also trying to communicate with a spaceship that’s returning from a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. He’s attempting to warn them not to return to Earth and to turn around and start a habitat on the moon they just left. But the stalactite dish is too weak and he must make the dangerous journey to another outpost. And he must make this journey now with a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) who was accidentally left behind when the research station was evacuated. This is a good movie.
The problem is half the movie takes place on that said spaceship. In fact, most of the third act takes place there. And it’s not that this part isn’t a good movie, it’s just a different movie. The plot there focuses on Felicity Jones and the rest of the crew (David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone) and their quest to return to Earth, even though they haven’t heard from Earth in a distressing amount of time. But it’s just a strange juxtaposition between Augustine, where everything is so bleak. Like, The Road bleak. Then we go back to the spaceship and the gang is singing along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Over these last few months of watching movies at home, I can’t quite figure out if I’m more or less forgiving. It’s for sure one of those – or maybe a combination of the two that changes how I look at everything. At first I was for sure more forgiving because any entertainment was “good.” Now, I’m not so sure. Because when I was going to movie theaters I could at least say, “well, it got me out of the apartment.” Now, when I’m watching something I don’t like, I know I can easily, within seconds, put on something that I do like.” The reason I mention this is, despite what I didn’t like about it, Clooney’s side of the story had me riveted enough that I wanted to see how it all turned out for him. And, again, I hadn’t seen him in a movie in four years, I felt like I needed to soak it all up because who knows when the next one might be.
George Clooney doesn’t seem like an actor who needs a renaissance of any kind, but when you look at the last few years, yeah, maybe he does? And he’s never really done bad work, but for whatever reason the last few films didn’t click. If nothing else, in The Midnight Sky, we see those glimpses of what we love about George Clooney. And when I mentioned earlier I wish Clooney hadn’t directed, here’s what I mean: Clooney wants to direct actors who aren’t himself, which I’m sure is why we spend so much time with the crew of the spaceship. But if Clooney weren’t directing, that director would have probably realized that the story thrives in those small moments with Clooney. It’s almost like the director George Clooney is the actor George Clooney’s worst enemy.
‘The Midnight Sky’ will be in theaters this weekend and begins streaming on Netflix on December 23rd. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.