THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)
A lonely scientist in the Arctic races to stop fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
Based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, The Midnight Sky sees George Clooney return to the director’s chair, starring in this straightforward but underwhelming sci-fi film. Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a terminally-ill scientist surviving on an Arctic base after an unknown apocalyptic event. After discovering a young girl, Iris, has been left behind with him, he tries to make contact with the Æther space craft, which is returning from a mission to a habitable moon of Jupiter, to warn them to turn back.
Set in 2049 after an apparent nuclear holocaust, we flit between two narratives: that of Augustine and the left-behind Iris (newcomer Caoilinn Springall) on Earth, and of the crew aboard Æther as they fly home, unaware of the horror that unfolded back on Earth. These are also intercut with flashbacks to Augustine’s younger years as a scientist searching for habitable planets, where it’s revealed he discovered the moon which the Æther space craft has visited. Rather than de-ageing Clooney as Netflix did with the cast of The Irishman (2019), Ethan Peck is instead cast with Clooney’s voice dubbed over, which works perfectly well and probably cost a whole lot less than the technology Martin Scorsese used.
The multiple narratives and flashbacks give the film a good pace, but besides that the script is generally weak. It’s full of cliches, such as Augustine nursing a whiskey in every early scene to signify he’s a ‘troubled’ and weary old soul. The dialogue is full of exposition (perhaps unavoidable in some sci-fi), especially between Augustine and Iris, with the latter being mute. Upon realising they can’t contact the Æther crew from their current location, they must travel through the Arctic to a nearby base with a stronger satellite, setting the pair off on a The Road-esque journey against the brutal landscape. Their quest, however, feels ultimately pointless in terms of character development and serves only to further the plot.
Aboard the Æther, the crew are led by Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo), who include Sully (Felicity Jones), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). After a successful mission to the K-23 moon orbiting Jupiter, which can support human life, the crew face their own challenges making contact with Earth. When Augustine is finally able to make contact, for example, the Æther is hit by a bombardment of meteors, knocking off their comms system. What should act as tense, thrilling action feels underwhelming; perhaps this has been overdone in outer space sci-fi. The crew are hit by similar mini-crises which they promptly deal with, quashing any drama quickly.
Although the jumping between stories helps pace the film nicely and enables it to explore a wider narrative, it does little to give any emotional impact. There are several moments where it feels one should feel something, but efforts to make some of the characters three-dimensional fall flat, especially the crew of the Æther. We don’t spend enough time with any of them, so there’s little emotional investment to be found. That’s not to knock any of the performances, however, all of whom have clearly been well-guided by Clooney’s confident direction, who himself delivers a solid performance.
Credit where it’s due, though. The production design from Jim Bissell (300) delivers a cool and original-looking spacecraft and science base, and cinematographer Martin Ruhe (The American) brilliantly captures the Icelandic landscape, which is where the Artic scenes were shot. However, if there was an award for the cringiest needle drop of the year, it would go to the wince-inducing use of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as the Æther crew repair their radar, which is perhaps the most horrifying moment in the film, even against a scene which sees Augustine put a dying radiation victim out of his misery.
And so, as we float between these two intercutting stories (which evidently worked well in films like Interstellar) there’s little chance for any drama to develop, leading to an anticlimactic climax that peters out. As a serious sci-fi film, The Midnight Sky falls disappointingly flat. It does, however, make for a decent family-friendly sci-fi drama because of its child-friendly plot.
USA | 122 MINUTES | 2.11:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: George Clooney
writers: Mark L. Smith (based on the book ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Lily Brooks-Dalton).
starring: George Clooney, Ethan Peck, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chander, Caoilinn Springall, Sophie Rundle, Tim Russ & Miriam Shor.