Review: Disjointed 'The Midnight Sky' gets lost in space
Courtesy of Netflix
George Clooney is setting out to make his “2001: A Space Odyssey: or something from the same cloth. Once the sexist man alive, the actor-turned director - whose one-two punch of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “Good Night and Good Luck” signaled his ability behind the camera. Though he stalled with “Leatherheads,” the starry “Monuments Men,” and “Suburbicon,” his latest feature “The Midnight Sky” is the director’s biggest canvas (and budget) yet. But it’s nowhere near his best.
Working with Netflix’s deep pockets, “Midnight Sky” - based on the 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton - is a technical marvel shot with an IMAX lens. The vastness and glistening beauty of space is intoxicating, which underscored by Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat certainly earns its stripes, but a disjointed, connect the dots narrative sours the overall vibe. Characters don’t have depth, and comparisons to “Gravity” and “The Martian” are inevitable though Clooney stages exhilarating visual effects sequences, yet underneath the spectacle lies minimal emotional weight.
Taking place in February 2048, one week after an undisclosed “event” has all but wiped out humanity (don’t they always?) “The Midnight Sky” is caught between two conflicting, albeit, interconnected plots: one sees Clooney isolated at the Barbeau Observatory in the frozen tundra of Antarctica; and the other abroad the Aether, a NASA ship housing a group of medical and scientific engineers (mostly one dimensional caricatures) in route to Earth.
Clooney’s Dr. Augustine is battling cancer and stays behind while his colleagues try to save themselves (in the opening scene, we see them walking in a caravan line and transported by helicopter to an unknown location). He believes his best shot at survival is to stick around, do his daily blood transfusions and pop chemo pills like Tic-Tacs. Sporting a scruffy beard, a ripped flannel shirt, and a thin hairline, Clooney goes overboard trying to shed his sexy persona as if to say: “I’m a transformative actor!”
But he’s not completely alone: a 7-year-old stowaway named Iris (Caoilinn Springall - making her big screen debut) is found in the kitchen scrounging for leftovers. While not a mute, she doesn’t talk or communicate expressively, drawing pictures and engaging in a friendly game of pea hockey sends a clear signal. This relationship has the makings of a father/daughter bond seen in numerous films. Eventually, they must head for the Lake Hazen observatory, opening “The Midnight Sky” up for a second half adventure where the pair fend off wolves, come across crashed airplanes, and barely escape death in a tumultuous Arctic climate.
Meanwhile, the Aether is returning from a maiden voyage to K-23, a hidden moon inside Jupiter the young Augustine once said could be sustainable for human life. Before you can say “Interstellar,” this band of scientists - who conveniently started their trek before Earth went to shit - are eager to reveal their findings but NASA isn’t picking up. The crewmembers are an appealing, if uneven bunch, but there’s not much for them to latch onto. Felicity Jones gets the meatiest role playing Sully, and poor David Oyelowo is sidelined as the enigmatic Commander, Tom Adewole. The couple are expecting a daughter, which considering their predicament is the worst timing imaginable. Other shipmates include an underused Demian Bichir, the disposable Tiffany Boone (whose given the films one heartstopping sequence) and Kyle Chandler?
Aside from a running joke about what Sully and Tom will name their daughter, most of these characters are never humanized. They stare blankly at CGI screens pointing and saying big words. Some of them have families (and an adorable cat named Einstein) back home, but those fleshed out backstories are few and far between. At least Clooney gives them one immersive sequence to anchor: a satellite repair job that quickly goes haywire when bulky debris hits the ship, sending it on a tilt-a-whirl tailspin. And when you think the worst has passed, Clooney invokes a strong visual cue for blood in space that won’t soon be forgotten.
But glossy, meticulously crafted scenic designs are half the battle, “The Midnight Sky” has to touch its audience on a human level. Though Clooney and Springall get close to harboring those feelings, the film struggles to gain momentum as it inadvertently cuts back and forth between life on earth and the crew members aboard the Aether. Clooney wants the best of both worlds but he ends up getting lost in space.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY is now playing in select theaters and debuts on Netflix Wednesday, December 23rd.