Director: George Clooney
Producer: Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Keith Redmon, Bard Dorros, Cliff Roberts
Writer: Mark L. Smith, based on Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Cast: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall
Streaming Platform: Netflix
George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky begins when everything seems to have ended- in the era of the post-apocalypse. It isn’t interested in how we got here (geomagnetic storms), but in what to do now that we are here. Augustine (Clooney) finds himself alone in a base, somewhere in the Arctic Circle. The Earth has been wiped, and so has his will to live out a happy end to a fruitful life spent trying to find the possibility for human habitation in outer space. Soon, he finds out that he’s not alone, accompanied by a blue-eyed girl, Iris, who refuses to speak to him, but follows him like a shadow. She props him up, giving his survival in that isolating ice-washed base an additional function- of caregiving.
In outer space, there’s a satellite that is returning to Earth from Jupiter, having discovered a habitable moon there. But none of the people on board, including the pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), are aware of what transpired on Earth in the interim. They spend their days hoping for a warm return, and in the meantime use technology to simulate their familiar lives, with holograms of loved ones. (When the COVID-19 lockdown began, and we recognized the possibility of not being able to touch and be with distant, loved ones, Karman Verdi’s images of recreating intimacy with technology became very popular, almost a totem symbol of urban, privileged loneliness. Whiffs of this can be felt there.)
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But the problem with the film is that the loneliness, while adequately highlighted in the frames’ vast negative space, just isn’t heightened. There’s no pang. The drama too, doesn’t play out with palpable adrenaline, barring one scene involving cracking ice and gushing waters. There’s even something dated about the musical score in places, using percussion to play in moments of intense revelation- again, something that only highlights, but never heightens drama.
Perhaps Clooney, in making this film more meditative (or languorous depending on the mood you are watching this film in), and removing from it all semblance of detailed plotting, was trying to achieve something new within the genre of the post-apocalypse. So instead of plotting one good track, he has three stories running- one on Earth, one in the satellite coming back to Earth, and one of Augustine’s past (Ethan Peck plays the middle-aged Augustine, a refreshing change from older actors also playing their younger selves in flashbacks, something Hindi cinema does a dime a dozen.) But instead, the three threads play out inertly, not adding to one another’s intensity. Augustine’s past, especially, plays out without feeling or direction. You never get a sense of who he is beyond the warm hues he remembers his past with. Even the last “revelation” that somewhat ties these three tracks together, doesn’t have the intended punch. By not giving the characters moments to reveal themselves entirely, Clooney leached any semblance of feeling from and towards them.
There are, however, some stunning moments peppered through the 2 hour runtime. A beautiful moment when Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ plays out- one of camaraderie, and, if one is intimately familiar with this genre, of impending doom. But then the doom comes, like it did in Gravity, merely as a string of sequences. Death is incidental, and feels just as loose. Sully’s pregnancy posits a moment of hope in this bleak narrative- and towards the end of the film there’s a stunning moment of silence, post the revelation, a moment of true hope for a new world, without stating it, but merely inhabiting it. More of this, would have, perhaps, made for an indelible watch.