Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Keith Redmon, Brad Dorros and Cliff Roberts Director: George Clooney Screenplay: Mark L. Smith Cast: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall, Sophie Rundle and Ethan Peck Distributor: Netflix
One might expect a movie about desperate efforts by an earth-based scientist to save the crew of a spaceship from impending disaster to be exciting, but that’s certainly not the case here. Solemn, serious and conspicuously dull, George Clooney’s apocalyptic sci-fi film, based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” proves tough sledding for its viewers as well as its characters.
The narrative is set in 2049, with the human race teetering on the brink of annihilation. A few weeks after what’s simply called “the event,” presumably the result of man-made ecological destruction or international conflict, our protagonist, Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, sporting a Santa Claus beard but no jollity whatever), is glumly saying farewell to the other staff at an Arctic observatory. They’re abandoning the facility to seek refuge in those underground shelters we always hear about in disaster pictures (see the recent “Greenland” for a more action-packed version of the same).
Lofthouse has chosen to remain, however. He’s ill, as we see from the regular blood treatments he gives himself, and hopes to make contact with the crew of a space vessel, the Æther, he was instrumental in launching a couple of years earlier. They’re coming back from a voyage to a moon of Jupiter that he’d discovered, and communications have broken off. He wants to tell them of what’s happening back on terra not-so-firma.
Lofthouse ambles about the facility meditating on the past. As shown in flashbacks, as a young scientist (played stiffly by Ethan Peck), he wows audiences with lectures about K-23, that moon he found, which, he says, seems to have all the conditions that might permit human colonization. (Presumably even then our ravaging of earth has already seeded doubt about its future habitability.) He meets Jean Sullivan (Sophie Rundle) at a scientific conference and sparks fly between them, but his work must take precedence and so the two part.
Now, as he wanders disconsolately through the station, he encounters a girl (Caoilinn Springall) who has apparently been left behind. She doesn’t speak, but draws the picture of a flower to tell him her name is Iris. They gradually bond and together confront a series of frigid adventures as they set off on foot to another Arctic base where Lofthouse hopes a stronger antenna will allow him to contact the Æther.
Meanwhile aboard the spacecraft the crew is looking forward to the return to earth; they have good news about what they found on K-23. There are five of them: stalwart Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo); mission specialist Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole’s significant other, who is pregnant with his child; flight engineers Maya (Tiffany Boone) and Sanchez (Demián Bichir); and pilot Tom Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). They joke with one another, suggesting names for Adewole and Sully’s unborn child, for example (Mitchell suggests Hyacinth), but also share quieter moments thinking about those they left behind so long ago.
But after Sully briefly makes contact with Lofthouse, who warns them in fractured transmission of the danger back on earth, the lines of communication are again disrupted when the ship is hit by a meteor shower. The damage necessitates a space walk for repairs—a reasonably well-staged episode that at last delivers some excitement (though it remains a pale reflection of the Jupiter mission in “2001”), but also adds to the gloom of the tale when tragedy strikes.
In the end, communications are restored, Lofthouse informs Sully of the situation on earth, and she in turn tells him about the paradisiacal qualities of K-23, which would make it possible for the crew to return there and create a new Eden if they choose—which of course leads to deliberations among them about what course to take. And, of course, there are revelations that tie present circumstances to Lofthouse’s past, and italicize the sense of regret he feels about some of the choices he made. These twists are not, sad to say, at all surprising, and will strike many viewers as positively maudlin.
The technical aspects of the film are more than adequate, with Jim Bissell’s production design competent if hardly outstanding and Martin Ruhe’s cinematography also solid. Alexandre Desplat’s score is emotionally full-bodied, to say the least.
Its soaring themes, though, help relieve some of the flatness of Clooney’s direction, which is accentuated by Stephen Mirrione’s frequently slack editing. Nor are the performances particularly invigorating. Clooney radiates despair, and while all the Æther crew members are played by strong actors, only Bichir brings much vitality to the mix; the others don’t invest their characters with much personality. At that, however, they’re more impressive than Peck and Rundle, who generate little chemistry in the flashback scenes.
Perhaps it’s not fair to criticize “The Midnight Sky” for lacking much visceral energy—after all, it’s not meant to be a conventional high-octane adventure movie but a sober reflection on what our planet’s future might look like. But good intentions don’t preclude dramatic heft. The movie is pretty much a high-minded bore.