The backstory of George Clooney’s protagonist is built on emotionally thin ice that shatters under the larger dramatic weight of his space opera.
In George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, the journey across Arctic’s snowy expanse literalises a hero’s self-redemption. A grizzled old scientist treks through an icy wasteland to contact a crew of astronauts. He must prevent them from returning to an Earth destroyed by a mysterious catastrophe.
Clooney’s imposing vision of a dying world brings to mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Only, if McCarthy explored the depths of human nature, Clooney barely scratches the surface. Where films like Solaris and High Life contemplate our place and fate in the deep cosmos, The Midnight Sky gets stuck in shallow soap opera.
So his adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel plays too much like a vanilla sci-fi drama with literary aspirations.
We don’t know what caused the end of the world in The Midnight Sky. The film begins with a vague “3 weeks after the event.” When characters are wearing respirators, and birds are dropping dead to the ground, it isn’t hard to guess. What we do know is Augustine (Clooney) decided to stay behind at a research station in the Arctic to protect “his life’s work” (to find habitable planets), while his fellow scientists left to be with their families. He stays behind because he is dying of cancer, and doesn’t have much time left on Earth anyway.
When he finds a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall), seemingly left behind during the evacuation, it spurs him to contact the crew returning home from a space expedition to Jupiter’s habitable moon, K-23. With the whole world gone dark, Augustine and Iris embark on an impossible journey to a weather station to warn them. In parallel, the spaceship crew — comprising Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), Sully (Felicity Jones), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir) — have to deal with their own potentially fatal challenges in outer space. They must deal with them without the assistance of mission control due to radio silence for over two weeks.
Martin Ruhe’s photography of the Arctic Circle, much like outer space, paints a picture of the inexpressible alienation and smallness we feel when confronted by an empty vastness. Wide shots used to reflect emotional distance as well as scale declare the kind of sci-fi movie it wants to be. But when the poetry of science fiction is engineered like a product in an assembly line, it leaves you cold. Bereft of fresh ideas, Clooney fills up the void with an Alexandre Desplat score, which gives the movie an enveloping feel of the scenery and space. But it doesn’t harmonise the visuals in any meaningful way, often overpowering the dialogue and overplaying the emotions in a scene.
The Midnight Sky juggles three different genre templates in one film. There are the obvious sci-fi elements: a world-ending ecological disaster, space colonisation, and the striking visuals that come with them. In particular, a zero-gravity scene of floating blood droplets makes for a morbidly fascinating spectacle. Then there are the survival thriller elements that come from the harsh conditions of space and the Arctic. Augustine and Iris trudge through radioactive blizzards, escape a fall through thin ice, and ward off a pack of wolves. In these moments where Augustine’s survival becomes analogous to mankind’s survival, the inherent pressure adds to the tension.
Deep in space, the film attempts to recreate a Gravity-like visceral experience of a spacewalk. When the spaceship is struck by meteors, Sully, Maya, and Adewole go out to repair the communications, only to be struck by more meteors mid-mission. Finally, there’s the redemptive drama: Augustine is haunted by his past and is trying to make amends for it.
But it’s a backstory built on emotionally thin ice that shatters under the larger dramatic weight.
Augustine is someone who has let his otherworldly curiosity supplant everything else: love, relationship, and family. Only in the final act will he realise there’s no higher meaning in space that can’t be found on Earth. Clooney plays a man at the absolute upper limit of his mental and physical strengths, forced to carry the burden of an entire planet on his shoulders, and being crushed by it. A lifetime of pain, and the despair over the potential end of mankind, is written all over his face (and grizzly beard). The anguish of this cancer-stricken man embodies a planet and a civilisation in its death throes. The parts of The Midnight Sky that work only do because it responds to our collective anxieties about climate change.
The Midnight Sky is streaming on Netflix.
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