Sometimes, a film can win a point or two simply for being sincere. Regardless of the film’s merits or flaws or the grand demonstration of its thesis, it’s clear that a lot of genuine belief and talent went into producing it. Personally, I’d rather watch a sincere film that shoots for the moon and fails than a mercenary film that’s only superficially thematic and just coasts by. The former very much describes The Midnight Sky, a movie with a lot of great intentions and only sort-of good execution.
When the film begins, Something Has Happened on Earth that’s slowly turning the planet toxic. While most of humanity races to hide underground, scientist Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) stays behind on an Arctic research base. He also encounters an abandoned young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) hiding there. When he discovers that a space mission to Jupiter’s moons is returning and unaware of the disaster on Earth, he and Iris risk the unforgiving Arctic landscape to reach a weather station with an antenna powerful enough to send the crew a message: don’t come back.
Clooney, who also directed the film, has described The Midnight Sky as a cross between Gravity and The Revenant. In fact, it shares screenwriter Mark L. Smith with the latter film. But Clooney’s equation is only partially correct. There are elements of both films here split between the two main plot threads, but those elements were both executed better in the other films. Here, they come off as high-res photocopies. Close to the originals but clearly a step down.
That might sound a bit harsh, especially because the reality is that this film is nothing if not competent and professional. But so many moments remind the viewer that scenes like these have been done slightly better in other films. Almost nothing here is truly bad, and a lot of is actually quite good, but it often seems like the film’s reach far exceeds its grasp. For the record, Augustine and Iris’ Arctic adventure comes off better than the space mission, almost to the point that it seems like it’s an entirely separate film.
The film’s visuals are almost always on point, with both sides of the film having set pieces that are both visually and viscerally exciting. Alexandre Desplat’s score is a perfectly icy, affecting backdrop that seems to merge with the visual palette to create a multi-dimensional painting. Smith’s dialogue is utilitarian but meaningful, lean and full of purpose.
What really undoes the film is its pacing. The rather episodic nature of the plot isn’t helped by Clooney’s tendency to drag scenes out. The script might be tight, but the overall narrative is rather slack and uneven. It takes a very long time for the film to get anywhere, and the final destination often ends up feeling slightly anticlimactic. The longer the film goes on, the more and more obvious the final act’s plot twists become. The action doesn’t rise so much as it does gently slope upward.
Clooney also has some issues juggling the themes of the film, and he doesn’t spend enough time with any one of them to make it stand out more than the others, leaving the core of the film kind of muddled. Is it about environmental stewardship? The importance of human connection? The need for us to face our mistakes? Yes. All at once. Clooney never makes a truly bold statement, however, leaving a lot of static on the comm. It becomes frustrating trying to sort things out, which prevents the viewer from connecting with the story.
The crew of the space mission also isn’t fleshed-out well enough aside from David Oyewolo’s captain and Felicity Jones’ Sully. (Who I think is the communications expert?) We spend a lot of time with the crew, but we don’t really get to know most of them. The film still gives them each arcs of a kind, but they seem truncated and intermittent. They land well, but you can’t keep track of them while they’re in the air.
That being said, the crew does feel like a coherent, bonded unit. There is remarkable chemistry between the actors, and every actor gives an entertaining, lived-in performance. Oyewolo and Jones especially commit to their roles in an understated way, making their characters sympathetic and relatable. There’s never an issue with their performances, just their material.
Likewise, Clooney is magnetic and commanding as Augustine. Augustine is slowly dying of cancer, and Clooney looks every bit a hollowed-out shell. However, Augustine never truly gives up hope, and his determination to make it to the weather station is inspiring. He has an excellent rapport with Caoilinn Springall, who gives a remarkably nuanced performance with a character who has only one line of dialogue in the entire film. Springall has a highly expressive face that conveys deep emotions with subtlety beyond her years, and the bond between Iris and Augustine is very, very real.
It becomes really hard to dislike the film by the end, even given its shortcomings. The final act is nothing short of heart-breaking in the best ways, and it refuses to come to a tidy resolution. It might be kinetically-lacking, but it’s emotional energy is high. If Clooney had tightened the film up a little more, trimmed a few scenes and paced it less andante and more moderato, it could have truly soared. As it stands, it’s a bit too earth-bound to reach the heights it needs to. But the attempt is something to be applauded, and its heart is definitely in the right place.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
The Midnight Sky can be streamed exclusively on Netflix.