The Midnight Sky (2020, George Clooney)

The Midnight Sky goes wrong for a number of reasons. It’s too thin, even with phenomenal special effects—half the film is an Arctic adventure tale, half the film is a hard sci-fi but done as a 2001 homage. They’re destined to collide, but the Arctic adventure ceases to be an Arctic adventure by that time and instead has become… well. It’s kind of hard to describe.

A poorly executed character study maybe?

Doesn’t matter. The Arctic adventure stuff and its importance in the narrative is a complete waste of time. The space stuff is where it’s at in Sky, which is a problem since it’s a movie where George Clooney directs George Clooney in an Arctic adventure poorly juxtaposed opposite a space mission’s return to Earth.

The year is 2049. We make big advances in science real fast apparently, but there’s another global pandemic or something about to it, we just know it. So we’re going to colonize a previously undiscovered moon of Jupiter. Clooney has spent his whole life working towards that goal—starting when he’s in flashback and the character is played by Ethan Peck. Oddly, we know what George Clooney looked like thirty years ago and he did not look like Peck. Also Peck’s performance is terrible. Like. Real bad. Just real bad.

The whole flashback thing is a disaster. It doesn’t have to be a disaster. If Clooney were interested in pulling it off—Clooney the director here—it could be fine. Because Sky shows it can be fine, when it’s in space and Clooney gets to do the mechanics of speculative space travel stuff. Then he’s interested.

But when he’s literally the star of the movie… not so much.

Clooney’s the last man on Earth until he finds out he’s not. There’s a forgotten little girl (played by Caoilinn Springall), who’s forecast in the first scene with a jackhammer. There’s no nuance, no subtly. Midnight Sky hangs at least three Chekov rifles on the wall in the first act, with Clooney holding the shot on them about five times too long. Stephen Mirrione’s editing is one of the film’s strongest technicals and the film’s got lots of strong technicals, but the literal physical plot giveaways? Mirrione can’t cut those lingering shots well because they’re bad shots.

So Clooney’s got to warn the last spaceship to turn away from Earth or else they’ll die and now he’s got to bring this kid across the Arctic with him. And there are dangers and so on. There are some great action thriller sequences with it, but since they add up to bupkis with Springall (who suffers the thin writing worst in the cast, which is impressive because there’s so much thin writing), they’re kind of a waste. They’re Clooney padding it out with technical success while it turns out, giving himself this great character study part, he’s got zero interest in acting the role. It’s an incredibly loose performance; Clooney puts no effort into directing Clooney.

And, outside Springall, pretty much no one else either. He just sort of lets them try to figure it out on their own, though Tiffany Boone and Demián Bichir do get some direction and to good effect. They’re on the spaceship with Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler. Oyelowo is the best—and gives the film’s best performance; he’s the captain. Jones is the engineer maybe. She’s pregnant. There’s a bit of pointless tension over introducing the father’s identity, but it’s in the space section so it’s permissible.

Chandler’s the pilot. Chandler gets the least direction. At times you wonder if he literally rejected it. He’s fine though. Jones is fine too. Though with less affability than Chandler.

We’re going to find out—if we can’t guess—Jones is going to be incredibly important only she’s never incredibly important. Quite the opposite. She’s the least interesting character on the spaceship because otherwise the third act twist and turn won’t work.

She also gets all the alien planet scenes to herself and they’re all terrible CGI composites. Like, Martin Ruhe should be reprimanded terrible. Otherwise his photography’s fine. It’s not great. It’s fine.

But the production values are strong, even if Jim Bissell’s production design is 2001 plus Alien plus I think “Doctor Who” plus The Thing plus… you get the idea. There’s not a single original visual in the movie, which is understandable, there have been so many sci-if movies you can’t reinvent the wheel or spinning centrifuge again.

The lighting in the spaceship itself is always good.

The real star ends up being Alexandre Desplat’s music, which seems to be from that better movie Oyelowo is acting in. Seriously, by the third act, it’s incredible Desplat was able to come up with such good music to accompany such insipid narrative.

So.

The Midnight Sky is a technically excellent sci-fi outing—also, the 2049 thing, seriously, if they’d bumped it another thirty to fifty years it’d end up making the movie at least ten percent less silly—but otherwise it’s a well-acted stinker. Though, cut all the Clooney stuff and add some more space stuff and the story’d probably be good.

But with the Clooney stuff? It is not good. It’s not even disappointing, because when Sky crashes, it does so proudly under its own hubris. It has it coming, which is a disservice to the better performances and the quality production.

Clooney maybe should’ve found a better lead for it; someone whose acting he was interested in watching would’ve been a good start.

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