The Midnight Sky Review

The Midnight Sky
The year is 2049, and the Earth is toast. Three weeks after a devastating global “event” that has left the planet uninhabitable, reclusive scientist Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) races to stop a team of astronauts from returning, thereby accidentally dooming the future of the species.

by Nick de Semlyen |
Published on
Original Title:

The Midnight Sky

It opens with a man with a hefty grey beard, toiling in the Arctic to help humanity. So far, so The Christmas Chronicles 2. But unlike that other Netflix offering of this season, The Midnight Sky is a sombre, urgent affair. George Clooney’s seventh film as director, it adapts an elegiac 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton into a double-stranded sci-fi helix about planet Earth’s last, desperate days. It cuts between a scientist down here trying to get a message into the sky and the inhabitants of the spacecraft he’s attempting to reach. And it’s by far Clooney’s most ambitious work behind the camera to date, not least as he had to toggle technical duties with maintaining that massive beard.

The Midnight Sky

Half of the film sees him channelling both Iñárritu and DiCaprio, as he drops himself into a kind of polar spin on The Revenant (scripted by the writer of the actual Revenant, Mark L. Smith). Clooney’s sickly scientist Augustine Lofthouse (a character name that sounds like he should be getting upset about a gazebo in a P.G. Wodehouse novel) must trek through a blizzard, fend off wolves and face freezing waters, all the while looking after a mysterious young girl who has come into his orbit. Presumably there’s a deleted scene in which he wrestles a walrus. As director, Clooney whips up a convincingly bleak tundra. And Lofthouse is a glum but compelling character, stooped over with regrets but trudging forward with the determination of a man who knows he has one chance to finally make things right. A series of touching flashbacks fill in his backstory, with Ethan Peck (Gregory's grandson) playing the younger Augustine and he and Clooney sharing the voice through some effective audio trickery.

A moving tale, by turns muscular and poetic.

The other half of the film is closer to Gravity, tracking a band of bewildered astronauts aboard a vessel called Aether as they inch closer to Earth, wondering why they’re getting radio silence from home. Again, it’s technically impressive, and there are lovely moments, from a Neil Diamond space-walk sing-along to the sight of Kyle Chandler boxing a virtual-reality monkey. But while they’re played by a strong bunch of actors (also including Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo), the characters remain slightly thin, representations of the best qualities of humankind rather than living, breathing people. And a third-act, deep-space action sequence feels more like a Netflix note (“Now, we don’t want to go full Solaris, George”) than a necessary story beat.

The Midnight Sky is a big swing from Clooney. Just as Suburbicon took on racism and The Ides Of March had things to say about the American political process, this is a strong note of caution as to what the near future could look like if the environment is allowed to fester. Its disparate threads may not all quite tie together — and a big reveal near the end won’t be easily swallowed by everyone — but it’s still a moving tale, by turns muscular and poetic.

Swinging between ice and space, Clooney has upped his directorial ambition and delivered a big-scale, big-hearted story, even if it struggles to match the films it riffs on.
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