When you look at the directorial output of George Clooney, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a phenomenal biopic in Good Night and Good Luck, alongside an underrated political drama in The Ides of March. However, a level down you have a solid debut in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but everything else has been, in one form or another, lacking. Leatherheads, The Monuments Men, and Suburbicon were letdowns, so it’s fair to wonder what we were getting with The Midnight Sky. Luckily, while being one of Clooney’s biggest projects, it’s one of his better ones, too. The film finds the emotion and intelligence that good science fiction requires. By doing so, Clooney and company paper over some small flaws and make this movie a strong viewing experience.
The Midnight Sky has a unique flavor to it. It’s big, but also fairly intimate. There’s scope, but it’s also restrained. Essentially, it’s a middle ground between the pulse-pounding intensity of Gravity and the “sciencing the shit out of things” fun of The Martian. While that could easily result in the flick being stuck in no man’s land, it actually ends up with its own interesting identity.
George Clooney the actor and George Clooney the director are both firing on all cylinders here. Especially behind the camera, Clooney is supremely confident and handles things as well as any blockbuster filmmaker. The performance is a bit familiar, but certainly effective. At its core, the elements on display from Clooney in all regards put forth a sense of humanity. More on both below, but The Midnight Sky is the sort of film that showcases his talents particularly well.
After too many years mistreating the planet, Earth is beyond repair. As a way of trying to keep humanity alive, astronauts are in search of a distant planet to move to, with one having some promise. Back home, Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is the last remaining occupant of a satellite station in the Arctic. Augustine has volunteered to stay behind, trying in vain to contact the crew in space, or anyone else, really. He’s sick, treating himself in between talking into the void. He’s also haunted by memories of something that happened when he was younger (played there by Ethan Peck). Soon after the rest of the station’s occupants have vanished, he discovers a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) left behind. Learning her name is Iris, Augustine slowly bonds with her, bringing some light into his dark days.
As Augustine tries to see if there’s a way to contact someone, the crew in space are hoping for a message too. Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his wife Sully Rembshire (Felicity Jones), alongside Mitchell Rembshire (Kyle Chandler), Maya Peters (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir), make up the crew, and they’ve found a solid routine. Then, contact is made, briefly, leading the astronauts to opt to return home. Knowing that’s certain doom, Augustine races to re-establish contact and warn them. Why he’s so dedicated, well, that’s something we learn in due time.
The cast do a solid job with material that’s sometimes a bit on the thin side. They all bring empathy, heart, and humanity to something that otherwise could have been cold. George Clooney is gruff but haunted, never fully showing his cards, but clearly being someone you want to learn more about. He gets the most character development, and he doesn’t waste it. Clooney definitely makes the most of the role. Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Kyle Chandler, Felicity Jones, and David Oyelowo mostly have to play characters with one defining trait, but they’re talented enough to hide some of that thinness. Caoilinn Springall is actually best in show, outside of Clooney, as she’s a very promising child actress. Without much in the way of speech, she’s able to do a lot. Keep an eye on her.
George Clooney is surprisingly well suited to direct something of this larger scope. At the same time, the screenplay by Mark L. Smith is far more hit or miss. Smith inserts the flashbacks to a younger Augustine, which slows down the momentum, as well as doesn’t balance the various storylines too well. Plus, aside from Augustine, the characters are a tad underwritten. Some of this is on Clooney, but considering how well the other technical aspects are handled, it seems like the script was where things were lacking. In particular, a late stage plot development is one you’ll almost certainly see coming. While the writing could have been better, the tech work is outstanding. Truly, the cinematography from Martin Ruhe and Alexandre Desplat‘s score are part of what elevates the flick. Ruhe captures stunning images for Clooney, while Desplat give them a haunting musical overtone. A sequence involving someone bleeding in space is positively operatic, for example.
The Midnight Sky doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it should please sci-fi fans. I expect a somewhat divisive reaction, since you have to go in with the right expectations. This isn’t a blockbuster. It’s closer to an indie, vibe wise, than it is to escapism. In doing so, Clooney has made something that will stand the test of time, but may engender less overt praise than something a bit more disposable. Such is the nature of art.