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'The Midnight Sky' Review: Clooney's sci-fi adventure narrowly escapes gravity's pull

In 'The Midnight Sky,' Clooney the director makes a welcome return to form with a contemplative sci-fi adventure.

George Clooney directs and stars in 'The Midnight Sky,' about a scientist on Earth trying to get an urgent message to a group of astronauts in space.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

Clooney's latest reminds of earlier directing highlights like 'Good Night and Good Luck,' but suffers from too many similarities to other recent hard-science adventures.

For

  • 🚀 Both in front of and behind the camera, Clooney reminds moviegoers of his talent and ambition as a storyteller.
  • 🚀 An excellent ensemble cast brings to life these two improbable scenarios.

Against

  • 🚀 The story evokes a few too many situations from films like 'Gravity' and 'The Martian' to feel truly unique.
  • 🚀 Thinly-sketched emotional throughlines connecting Earth and space, past and present, don't entirely pay off effectively.

It’s easy to forget that George Clooney once courted Oscars as a director for Good Night, and Good Luck, but The Midnight Sky marks a welcome return to form after a series of uneven but respectfully adventuresome creative choices. Though its premise suffers more from similarities to The Martian and Gravity with a dollop of Interstellar and Soderbergh’s Solaris remake thrown in for good measure, Clooney’s latest effort behind the camera offers a welcome, uncommonly thoughtful approach to space travel both as it pertains to the experience itself and the instincts that lead man to venture out into the great empty unknown. As he simultaneously leads an extremely polished ensemble cast on screen as an Earthbound scientist desperately trying to contact a crew of astronauts before they return home to a planet they may no longer recognize, George Clooney takes his biggest swing to date with The Midnight Sky proving the adage that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.

Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, the lone inhabitant of an Arctic scientific facility after its staff was evacuated to safety following an extinction level event in 2049. Terminally ill, he accepts the task of contacting a spacecraft called the Aether that was sent to explore a moon outside Jupiter to determine if it can sustain human life. Racing back to Earth, the ship’s communications officer Sully Rembshire (Felicity Jones) is oddly unable to send or receive messages from Earth, and Augustine’s facility similarly cannot connect with the Aether. But at the same time that Augustine discovers another station in the same region whose equipment just might have the power and positioning to reach their ship, he stumbles across a mute girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who hid during the evacuation and was left behind.

Reluctantly caring for his charge, Augustine makes the fateful decision to trek across the unforgiving Arctic terrain and try and contact the Aether. In the meantime, the spacecraft veers off course, encountering damage that forces Sully to venture into space with her commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) and fellow science officer Maya Peters (Tiffany Boone) to make dangerous repairs. Before long, Augustine’s makeshift communication station and the Aether find themselves on a collision course, without all of the information the other possesses, or a way to share it. Both parties are soon faced with some difficult decisions about what to do and what to recommend as catastrophe sweeps the planet and a journey back to their terraformed new home is a risky prospect — if it’s possible at all.

What this adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book Good Morning, Midnight lacks in originality, it makes up for in timeliness, touching on a palpable sense of uncertainty how to handle a situation we’ve reduced to the cliched phrasing of “unprecedented,” but which demands a level of selflessness, and possibly calculating inhumanity, that few people possess. Mark L. Smith’s script paints Augustine as precisely this sort of clinical thinker, then explores how the imminent arrival of the Aether — and the discovery of inquisitive young Iris — throws his compass out of whack. Clooney’s performance exposes how a lifetime focused on hermetically sealed scientific possibility, imagining a future that may yet come, can obstruct the meaningful realities of the present, and more specifically what’s right in front of you. (Ethan Peck plays Augustine as an ambitious young man who focuses on a life’s work that’s big enough to obscure the fact he’s letting the love of his life slip through his fingers.) Iris thankfully doesn’t give him a second chance, but a haunting reminder of the choices that led him to a noble but lonely end.

Meanwhile in space, Jones and Oyelowo command a ship of consummate professionals, individuals who understand mission priorities but also recognize (and respect) human distractions. Much of their time involves solving various problems aboard the Aether — including not none but two asteroid fields, perhaps a common problem in space travel but certainly one in movies about space travel — while the film’s futuristic setting offers a harmonious and optimistic portrait of what exploration may look like, including a female astronaut whose impending pregnancy never becomes an obstacle to performing her job. The contrast that emerges between Augustine’s situation and the crew of the Aether’s is that he’s in more danger on Earth than they are in space, but their situations remain connected by the memories of a past they keep reliving, or perhaps hope to return to.

Clooney’s camerawork, aided by Alexandre Desplat’s dynamic, elegant score, subtly apes other films to create a shifting sense of mood: down on the ground, Augustine roams the empty hallways like the corridors of the Nostromo in Alien while inhospitable conditions batter the facility. And up on the Aether, crew members live inside hologram recreations of interactions with friends and loved ones, a simulation of ordinary life that will ring all too true during pandemic shelter-in-place orders, especially as Desplat’s music works its magic. 

Though most of Martin Ruhe’s cinematography is spartan, functional and beautiful, he and Clooney create a handful of images to truly marvel at as they draw out the themes of the story, and mount the action scenes with glossy verve. Personally I could have done with fewer sequences where the Aether crew navigate their way out of danger while sideways or upside down, but they’re worth it for the meditative pause as Augustine looks out of a window at the night sky while getting a blood transfusion, a man alone distantly reflected in the enormity of the cosmos.

While an inescapable familiarity in certain scenarios becomes the movie’s biggest enemy, Smith’s script doesn’t quite fully sketch the emotional lines that bind these parallel stories together, making their payoffs — and some clumsy reveals — feel forced, even false. But what Clooney lacks in precision as a filmmaker, he more than makes up for in sincerity, and this film evidences a kind of ambition that not a lot of his contemporaries, even more practiced directors, pour into their work. 

As a result, the movie occasionally feels a bit too self-serious, but at a time when too much spectacle on this level fails to offer anything serious at all to contemplate, that’s a problem worth dealing with — so much so, in fact, that this is the first film in a long time that you will really miss not seeing on the big screen. Ironically, of course, Clooney’s film was made expressly for Netflix; but the streaming service ends up being the exact right platform, because The Midnight Sky offers sprawling adventure and poignant intimacy on a canvas broad just enough to capture both in beautiful, evocative detail.