The biggest problem with being rich and successful, so I’m told, is that you stop hearing the word “no.” Take George Clooney. He is one of his generation’s most charismatic movie stars. He is a muse of talented directors like Steven Soderbergh and Joel and Ethan Coen. He is liked by just about everyone. Somewhere along the line, however, he decided that wasn’t enough, and what he really wanted to do is direct. It hasn’t worked, but no one has told him that. His last two films, The Monuments Men and Suburbicon, have been particularly unwatchable. After a three-year absence, Clooney is back with a new movie, The Midnight Sky, that fails to reverse the troubling trend.
The film is set in a near-future when the last remaining humans are heading for underground bunkers to escape an environmental disaster. Only Augustine (Clooney), a former scientist suffering from a terminal disease, is staying on the surface to witness the fallout. His plans to live out his final days in poetic symmetry with the planet, however, are thwarted when he discovers a young girl hiding on the Arctic research base that was to be his final home. With a sudden onslaught of parental responsibility, Augustine must give up his acceptance of his own mortality and figure out what to do with the little scamp.
There’s a lot of chew on here: It’d be easy to ascribe some autobiographical intent, especially since the longtime bachelor Clooney has spent the last three years raising twins. Moreover, there’s the potential for topical relevance, with many parents out there currently facing the challenges of raising children in isolation. But a distinct lack of reality pervades the film: There are no daily tantrums or struggles with virtual learning. In fact, the girl doesn’t even speak, which conveniently saves Clooney the filmmaker the task of giving her a personality. All she has to do is look pretty and let Augustine gradually start to care for her. If only it were that simple.
At least they get out of the house for a while. After discovering that there is a manned space vessel returning to Earth, Augustine and the girl set out across the frigid landscape for a communications station. The film hints at a thrilling survival story, but Clooney consistently deflates the tension by cross-cutting between the action on Earth and the more ho-hum drama on the spaceship. It’s a bust of a mission. The budding romance between astronauts played by Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo lacks sizzle, and none of the characters are well-defined enough for the human drama to mean much. Even what works feels painfully derivative. The clubhouse mentality of the crew seems lifted from The Martian, while the big set piece involving space junk will only remind viewers of the Clooney vehicle Gravity.
One wonders if The Midnight Sky would have played better in a cinema, not only for its effects-driven action sequences but also for its pervading sense of loneliness. Connecting to isolated characters is always easier when sitting in the dark with a group of strangers, and Augustine’s despair somehow feels more remote when viewed from a comfortable couch. As it stands, The Midnight Sky is a film of parts that work well enough on their own but never feel emotionally cohesive. That sound you might mistake for a heartbeat is actually the grinding of the story’s gears. Maybe you’ll be satisfied watching the pieces click together, but a film that deals in such primal stuff should make you feel something more. Say no to it.
The Midnight Sky is available to stream on Netflix on Dec. 23.