‘The Midnight Sky’ review: George Clooney sci-fi epic is grand but could be bolder

As a director, Clooney is able to summon moments of overpowering wonder

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    A stoic, ambitiously-crafted sci-fi with a stellar cast, The Midnight Sky sees George Clooney deliver his grandest feat of filmmaking yet.

    On screen, Clooney plays a scientist who by choice, is the last man on Earth. An unnamed disaster has rendered the planet’s surface uninhabitable, and Augustine – who is terminally ill – has opted to spend his remaining days in a solitary observatory, indulging in melancholia and a steady stream of brown liquor. No sooner does Augustine discover an active mission on a far reaching spacecraft – the crew of which are unaware of the dire situation on Earth – than he finds a mute girl (Caoilinn Springall) left behind on the station.

    The story is adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight, and Clooney takes great care to breathe humanity into his film set against the frozen Earth and outer space. On Earth, Springall’s elusive stowaway is a reserved though charming presence, even if the Lone Wolf and Cub narrative is far from fresh. Up in the sky, Felicity Jones’ pregnant astronaut navigates through a problematic mission home with her wholesome, amiable crew (David Oyelewo and Kyle Chandler co-star). Even the spacecraft itself appears human, with its intricate interior structured to look like a map of blood vessels, or the branches of a tree.

    Occasionally Clooney’s commitment strays distractingly into mawkishness however; in a series of flashbacks, a sub-narrative about Augustine’s early romantic relationship is too overplayed. The flawless moral fabric of the space crew meanwhile strips them of the complex, often comical characteristics that make Clooney’s earlier directorial efforts so sharp and likeable.

    Where The Midnight Sky is consistently impressive is in its spectacle, which is a pleasing surprise from a director whose feet until now have remained firmly on the ground. Working in collaboration with Netflix – who approached Clooney for the project – may seem like an act of self-sabotage given the slim-to-none chance that this film will ever have a wide theatrical release.

    Yet Clooney is able to summon moments of overpowering wonder, be it a shot of Jupiter dominating a foreign horizon, or the sweeping exterior shots of the tapered spacecraft, that bely his early venture into the genre. At his side, cinematographer Martin Ruhe (whose last project was Clooney’s underplayed serialised adaptation of Catch-22), keeps the film’s aesthetic pristine yet earthy.

    THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020). George Clooney as Augustine. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020

    High-action sequences are rationed, tautly orchestrated and used to devastating effect; on more than one occasion, the endurance of both parties are tested. The film also embodies strong political messages that align with Clooney’s own; a young innocent girl abandoned on a frozen planet hardly mixes messages about future generations and the current climate crisis.

    As an exercise in visionary filmmaking, The Midnight Sky succeeds admirably, and Clooney’s seasoned and trusted approach to working with a tight-knit ensemble of performers shines through. If only these strengths weren’t undercut by a need to strike a commercial chord with audiences, we’d be faced with a far more bold and robust piece of sci-fi filmmaking.

    Details

    • Director: George Clooney
    • Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo
    • Release date: December 23 (Netflix)
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