Before I delve into the steaming pile of “meh” that is The Midnight Sky, let me first preface by saying that I am a huge fan of George Clooney. I’ve followed his career for most of my life. He’s the only reason I saw any episodes of ER (just not a fan of medical dramas in general) or any of the Ocean’s movies in violation of my own rule against remakes. I find him to be an immensely charismatic actor, who – along with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (and maybe Matt Damon) – constitute the final generation of traditional Hollywood “Leading Men,” actors who can be slotted into just about any starring role and still win over a crowd just being themselves rather than playing a part. As a director, there’s almost always something intriguing about his films, even if they don’t turn out to be the best overall work. Good Night, and Good Luck was a masterpiece, but even less prestige fare like The Monuments Men had some cheeky good moments that outweighed the bad on balance.
But there’s one area where no matter what he does, Clooney falls flat, and that is science fiction. The Midnight Sky, in which he stars and directs, is the fourth major picture that sets him against the backdrop of a space program, and for me at least, it’s the fourth effort that comes up way short. First there was the Solaris remake, which got middling-to-good reviews from critics but was universally despised by audiences, largely in part because the marketing campaign sold them a sci-fi romantic thriller when it was really a psychological drama. Then there was Gravity, which looked fantastic, especially if you saw it in IMAX, but it was all in service of a plot that read like it was written by a fucking six-year-old, and Clooney’s illogical death (even Neil deGrasse Tyson called bullshit on that) and insulting hallucinogenic reappearance rendered the movie downright terrible from where I was sitting. To think that it nearly won Best Picture still induces a level of rage that forces me to suppress the urge to vomit. Then, most recently, there was the ill-advised on every level flop, Tomorrowland, and the less said about that, the better.
A major part of the problem is that the film wants to look like it’s saying something, but since it can’t even decide what type of movie it is, it ends up saying nothing, and sounding pretentious while doing it. Is this a sci-fi adventure? A disaster movie? A character study? A survival film? The overall product borrows themes and tropes from all of these, but never really picks a lane other than “preachy,” but it doesn’t even know what it’s preaching about, since crucial details are left firmly in the background in favor of spectacle.
Set in 2049, Clooney stars as Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist who has discovered other livable worlds, including a heretofore unknown moon of Jupiter dubbed K-23. On Earth, he is terminally ill and decides to stay behind at an observatory near the North Pole after a cataclysmic event (simply called “The Event” in opening text – so creative, much clever) which has apparently flooded the entire planet in radiation, with only a small percentage of the population escaping to underground facilities. Humanity is doomed, we have no explanation as to why, and it’s happening faster than the Earth freezing in The Day After Tomorrow. I understand that the nature of the catastrophe doesn’t really matter all that much, other than the apocalyptic threat it presents, but giving us basically no information until the film’s climax robs the entire proceeding of any real urgency, because we don’t know what the characters are up against. Lofthouse, knowing he’s about to die anyway, decides to drink away his remaining days and watch the unfolding of whatever this phenomenon is, with a healthy dose of nightmares and flashbacks to his youth and failed romances thrown in for good measure.
This Leaving Las Vegas manner of suicide is interrupted by two major discoveries. One is that a spaceship, the Aether, which was sent to study K-23 for possible colonization, is on its way back to Earth, and communications are down, meaning they don’t know what’s happened (neither do we, but still). Second, Lofthouse finds a small, mute girl (Caoilinn Springall) who apparently got left behind when the observatory was evacuated. He deduces that her name is Iris based on a picture of a flower she’s drawing.
At this point, I’ve already checked out, and we’re not even 20 minute in. I’ve seen enough movies to know where this is going. Hell, I’ve seen enough George Clooney sci-fi movies to know where this is going. There’s going to be some degree of disaster and debris out in space, endangering the lives of the entire crew (played as best as possible given the material by Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, and Demian Bichir) and ending at least one of them. Guess which one! Hint, think of the most clichéd cannon fodder characters in genre based on sex and race. Meanwhile, there will be some big, supposedly shocking twist involving young Iris, but it’s so obvious that it barely merits a mention. I won’t reveal it here, but I will say that a name like Iris is deliberate (hell, I named my guitar that because of its color), and the picture she’s drawing is the type of shitty picture any small child would draw. There is no way based on such a drawing that you could figure out what it was and then extrapolate that it was also her name unless you already KNEW it. I’ll leave it at that.
I will concede that some of the effects are pretty sweet. A trek across the Arctic in the middle of a blizzard was filmed in Iceland in 50 mph winds and at -40 degrees. That takes some balls, and it does produce what would be a decently dramatic moment if the rest of the movie leading up to it had any legitimate mystery to it. A doomed spacewalk to repair the Aether in the middle of the Asteroid Belt (to give you an idea of how incompetent the “science” part of the equation is, the entire crew is surprised and completely unprepared to deal with the mere existence of a field of asteroids between Jupiter and Mars) recalls one of the few truly exciting moments of Gravity. This film does show that it was at least capable of doing something great, but instead it settled for gruff old man/precocious little girl tropes and remorse about life’s misplaced priorities.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that George Clooney needs to just split up from space. He’s had four shots at this point, and it just hasn’t worked out. Cut your losses and get back to what you do best. The Midnight Sky had potential, but a confused tone and an inability to avoid sanctimony – or at least find some way to justify it – just leaves this as middling at best, grasping at straws and stealing any number of tropes from much better films. Honestly, one of the biggest disappointments is that Tim Russ from Star Trek: Voyager gets wasted in a thankless role. He has a handful of lines in an early flashback that only serves as an exposition dump for Lofthouse’s character before he hops on a helicopter, never to be seen again.
I’m just saying, Tuvok would have solved this shit.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your favorite Clooney movies? If we got the chance to colonize another world, would you go? Let me know!