Director George Clooney wants The Midnight Sky to be an intellectual science fiction adventure, a space opera that warns us of the consequences of neglecting our own planet in the search of a new one; the final result is less intellectual and more popcorn entertainment. The story is thin, and characters are left underdeveloped.
It’s the year 2049 and Earth has become uninhabitable. A mysterious gas surrounds the world from space and has made the air dangerous to breathe. Humanity is evacuating.
The Midnight Sky tells two stories: one from the ground and one from the sky. Down on Earth remains Augustine (Clooney), a lone astronomer looking to live out his final days at an observatory. Those plans are disrupted when he discovers a little girl has been left behind. As Augustine looks over her, he notices a crew of unaware astronauts heading home. It becomes a race against the clock for Augustine to contact the astronauts and warn them of the conditions on Earth, with the girl tagging along. Up above, the astronauts are returning from a scouting mission on the planet K-23, a potential new home from home. However, the Aether crew’s return is put in jeopardy when they discover their ship has gone off trajectory, forcing them to maneuver through uncharted territory.
One of my favorite movies from 2019 is Ad Astra, directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt. The film centers around a similar premise to that of The Midnight Sky: Earth is being threatened by a mysterious force and our protagonists are thrown into these unexpected save-the-day situations. I not only enjoyed Ad Astra’s sweeping visuals, meditative performance from Brad Pitt, and Max Richter’s melancholic score, but also that Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, felt thoroughly developed. When we are introduced to McBride, he is frustrated and trapped under the shadow of his father (played by a stubborn Tommy Lee Jones). His mission is to venture into space to find and shut down his father’s project, which is suspected of causing the cataclysmic events occurring on Earth. As he advances through the plot, McBride is influenced by his experiences, eventually realizing the self-destructive nature of his frustration – the same tragic frustration his father suffered from. When McBride finally reaches and confronts his father, the moment feels earned. Letting go of his father is the final piece for McBride to move on from the past tying him down, and the scene is simultaneously sad yet satisfying. When The Midnight Sky reaches a similar moment, it feels unearned. The emotional weight of Ad Astra is absent in The Midnight Sky, something the film’s mostly impressive visual effects can’t make up for (there is a scene with relatively noticeable greenscreen work).
On paper, the plot of The Midnight Sky is straightforward: two separate character arcs (which eventually intertwine) are moving from point A to point B. It then becomes the job of the director to enhance the story containing the plot, to spice up the material. Clooney’s direction feels plain and commercially safe. This isn’t inherently negative, but it does restrict The Midnight Sky from ever punching above mediocrity. Ambition is the last thing you want to be lacking when making a Sci-Fi film.
To stretch the runtime to a feature length, and to keep viewers awake, there are artificially placed sequences of brief excitement. Some of these sequences include Augustine’s shelter flooding, or him encountering a wolf in a snowstorm. The Aether crew have to survive two asteroid showers. While these moments in the plot are efficient and pack a thrill, their sole purpose is to serve up the film’s only action. When considering the rather one-note nature of the film’s characters, it makes you wonder if it would’ve been time better spent developing Augustine and the Aether crew. For example, most of the information we gather on Augustine is witnessed through insufficient flashbacks which I felt we needed more of. The film depicts Augustine as once a determined astronomer who sacrificed his personal/family life for his career. We’re supposed to later understand he regrets that decision, but even that’s not entirely clear or well communicated.
The strongest aspect of The Midnight Sky is the reliably solid turn from George Clooney as the grizzled Augustine. Despite having wanted to see more of his story, it is Clooney’s performance supplying Augustine with any humanity. The performance is more physical than dialogue-based, and Clooney is able to express his character’s longing through tired eyes and raspy delivery. The rest of the talent involved in The Midnight Sky, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, feel underused and wasted.
The Midnight Sky works well for a movie night if you’re looking to pass the time, just don’t expect it to be the next great Sci-Fi film. It has been a decade since Clooney’s last general success as director when he did The Ides of March (2011). Maybe he should just stick to acting. 6/10