There’s a lot that’s frustrating about George Clooney’s new film “The Midnight Sky,” from its egregious borrowing from any number of better movies to its pacing issues, but thanks to a few grace notes, its shortcomings are mostly forgivable.
Premiering December 23 on Netflix, it’s a film that sees Clooney entering a new phase of his acting career, and it also represents an uptick among his directorial output, on the heels of the misbegotten “Suburbicon” and “The Monuments Men.” Audiences will find much of “The Midnight Sky” familiar, but that familiarity puts its original moments and ideas into sharp relief.
Some cinematheque or other needs to host a “George Clooney in space” retrospective, connecting his acting efforts in films as philosophically diverse as “Gravity,” “Solaris,” and “Tomorrowland,” and each of those efforts has certainly flavored this new feature, written by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”), based on the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton.
It’s 2049, and humanity is being wiped out by something known as “The Event,” the details of which we are mostly spared. The crew of a remote base on the Arctic Circle goes home to spend doomsday with their loved ones, all except for the terminally-ill Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), who decides to remain in Greenland.
(The ultimate proof of Clooney’s movie-star gravitas, incidentally, is his ability to pull off playing a character named “Augustine Lofthouse.”)
It’s not long before Augustine makes two essential discoveries: One, there’s a space station with a crew of five (played by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bechir, and Tiffany Boone) that’s about a half-day away from being close enough to receive radio signals from Earth, and two, he’s not alone at the base, since young, silent Iris (Caoilinn Springall) was apparently been left behind when the staff departed. As the space station encounters its own difficulties making its way back home, Augustine and Iris must brave the ice to get to a weather station with a stronger antenna so that he can tell the travelers to turn back and return to the habitable moon of Jupiter (one that Augustine discovered) because there’s no more life on Earth.
Clooney and editor Stephen Mirrione craft a handful of brilliantly executed sequences, particularly one featuring some masterful bait-and-switch tension-building, but “The Midnight Sky” also has more than its share of sluggish moments. There’s a difference between haunting silence and dead air, and those dull spots make it easy to catalog the many films that paved its way: There’s the solitude of “Moon,” the scientific problem-solving of “The Martian,” the man-and-child apocalypse bonding of “The Road,” and the intergalactic parenting issues of “Contact,” “Interstellar,” and “Arrival,” to name just a few.
And even though Smith’s third-act reveals are thoroughly predictable, the film finds its thematic footing, ironically enough, teetering at the edge of the abyss. When facing the end of all things, do we keep up the fight, or charge into the unknown, or choose to remove ourselves entirely? If the plot offers no surprises, at least the film’s metaphors resonate. That’s at least in part thanks to the efforts of a solid ensemble cast; by the end of the film, they’ve taken what might have been character types and fleshed them into characters, and that gives their choices real weight.
It’s Clooney the actor who gets the most to do, and of the cast, he’s venturing the furthest out of his wheelhouse, having officially entered the phase in his career where he can be craggy if he chooses to, his face sporting bags and lines where it isn’t covered by a white beard. (Yet another previous film called to mind is “Emperor of the North”; when a grizzled Clooney, in goggles and a fur-lined parka, fires a rifle, he looks astonishingly like Lee Marvin.) He’s reached the age where he chooses to cast another actor (in this case, Ethan Peck of “Star Trek: Discovery”) to play the younger version of his character.
The film’s sense of futurism seems spot-on — the medical devices (and even the prescription bottles) seem just advanced enough for 30 years down the road — but Jenny Eagan’s costumes don’t overplay their hand; midway through the 21st century, Augustine will still be wearing flannel shirts, and a crew of astronauts will keep the jumpsuits simple, with a clean line.
End-of-the-world scenarios are as overplayed as zombies and vampires in contemporary pop culture, and “The Midnight Sky” only occasionally finds new ground to uncover in its Armageddon-set character study. That ground is there, though, and worth the effort for viewers to discover it for themselves.