by Philip Price
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones & David Oyelowo
Runtime: 2 hours & 2 minutes
George Clooney's seventh feature directorial effort takes place over what is seemingly only eleven or so hours, but takes us not just to the stars, but the possibilities beyond them. “The Midnight Sky” is the type of film that desires to have layers upon layers of meaning and be cause for deep, existential reflection yet what it brings to the table couldn't feel hollower. It's admirable, the way Clooney - working from a screenplay by Mark L. Smith and based on the book by Lily Brooks-Dalton - keeps the focus of this large scale story on two entities that mostly exist outside the bubble of where the more urgent, genuinely dramatic situations are happening. It's a bold choice to be sure, but we've seen the other movie before. You know, the one where a person or family is racing against the clock to find a safe haven before something catastrophic happens which, in the case of “The Midnight Sky,” is the fact Earth is now completely uninhabitable. So, why not remove the chase and zero in on those that have accepted their fate? The answer to this question should seem obvious in that there is then a complete lack of imperativeness to the proceedings, but Clooney's intent seems to have been not to focus so much on the details - what's happening is happening and can't be helped at this point - and instead on making the material more compelling by extracting the human angle of what brought these individuals who were once considered influential in this crisis to now be on the outside looking in.
Clooney has always seemed to be more comfortable in the director's chair, behind the camera even if his looks and effortless charm have always made him a more effective player in front of it. Unfortunately, at this point - 18 years into his directing career - his work as a filmmaker has been hit or miss at best. The lone exception I haven't seen in Clooney's directorial arsenal is 2002's “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which I recall receiving generally favorable reviews and while I don't know that I've seen “Good Night, and Good Luck” since my senior year of high school - 2005, the year it was released - I can recall sitting down for each of Clooney's subsequent features in a theater and being excited not only at the prospect of what Clooney might bring to the table, but also about the actual stories he was telling. From “Leatherheads” to “Ides of March” and from “The Monuments Men” to “Suburbicon”, Clooney has directed a new feature every three years since 2002 and yet - despite the intriguing premises, often fascinating characters, and irresistible true stories seemingly begging for a movie to be made around them - there is something in Clooney's execution that allows these stories to wind up with that same hollow feeling I felt in the final minutes of “The Midnight Sky.” Yes, the visual landscape here is maybe the most moving Clooney has achieved and the score from Alexandre Desplat works more to enhance these visuals than it does detract from them, but the narrative missteps and - to an extent - the lack of investment in these character's plights present not necessarily an uglier picture than the one we're seeing on screen, but certainly a less powerful one.
Clooney begins his film by playing Chris Stapleton's version of "Tennessee Whiskey" over the opening credits. An honorable way in which to start any film, sure, but given Clooney chooses to play this over a montage of his Augustine Lofthouse going through the motions of remaining as the last human being on earth and drowning his sorrows and regrets in booze means he's either very literal or attempting to elicit a couple difference purposes out of the use of the song. "Tennessee Whiskey," was originally written by country music hit-writer Dean Dillon and Linda Hargrove and was meant not as an ode to the drink from which the song takes its name, but instead is about a lover who saves the narrator from alcohol abuse, proving their intentions to be "as smooth as Tennessee Whiskey" and "as sweet as strawberry wine." Now, one could say that Clooney uses the theme of the song both as an ode to what is clearly his character's favorite drink, but also as a kind of foreshadowing "tip of the hat" to someone he loves coming to his rescue. This doesn't work completely as the relationship in that of the song is comparing the lover's affection to that of whisky and wine which, if applied to the dynamic in “The Midnight Sky,” would be rather icky. So, while we've spent much more time discussing a song choice than we have the movie thus far the fact we've reached the conclusion that Clooney (or someone in the music department) simply chose the song because it had whiskey in the title and that's what the character likes, so...why not? It may seem minuscule, but it's the lack of thought in this regard that leads me to thinking there's a reason for the aforementioned hollowness that Clooney's film so often possesses. Though difficult to recollect the specifics of why Clooney's previous endeavors failed to leave a mark it is most noticeable in this, his latest, that much of the detachment comes from not only the fact that we don't feel we really come to know these characters, but that we spend so much time with them and still don't seem to know them very well.
Brooks-Dalton's 2016 novel is a science-fiction thriller and Clooney's film largely makes itself comfortable in that genre as well even if Clooney seems to have desired to elevate the material. The story follows the intertwining journeys of Clooney's Lofthouse, an astronomer holed up in an isolated arctic outpost, and Sully (Felicity Jones) an astronaut returning to a planet Earth that isn't responding to any of her attempts at communication. Lofthouse believes he's all alone as one of the first things we see where he is located in Antarctica is what we can assume is happening across the globe as every other person on the planet besides Lofthouse is heading for an aircraft carrier that will presumably, eventually take them to the moon of Jupiter that Lofthouse discovered early in his career as a viable option for sustaining human life. Lofthouse believes he's all alone until he discovers a stowaway hiding in the kitchen in the form of a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall). While Lofthouse begins to form a bond with the young Iris and configure a plan for which he might contact someone who can turn around to rescue her, Sully was never alone. In fact, Sully has another human life not just by her side at all times, but within her as she is coming to the end of a pregnancy. Also on the ship with her is the baby's father, Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo), along with the rest of the crew that includes Mitchell Rembshire (Kyle Chandler), Maya Peters (Tiffany Boone), and Sanchez (Demián Bichir). The crew of the Ether spacecraft were on a mission to explore K23 (the Jupiter moon Lofthouse discovered) with a plan to return to Earth and report on their findings but given the current state of the planet they are now navigating the cosmos with no guidance from home and things are beginning to get tense. To make matters worse, Lofthouse has to leave his outpost and make a hazardous journey across what is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland (with an eight year-old) just so he can contact the Ether and inform them of the situation. As somewhat hinted at in the opening paragraph, Clooney doesn't really travel beyond these borders in terms of the narrative meaning we aren't ever given a grand explanation of what happened on Earth. All we really know is what we're told by text that appears in the opening shots of the movie stating its February of 2049 and that this is taking place "3 weeks after the event". We can deduce that something has caused the air to become toxic as Lofthouse and his young cohort have to wear oxygen masks any time they venture outside, there are birds dropping from the sky at an alarming rate, and because a couple of computer screens provide a hint at how quickly whatever occurred in this event is spreading (hint: it's rapidly). So, in some ways this is still very much a race against the clock-style story, but the pacing lacks the urgency this narrative requires. Clooney instead seems to have so desired making a more meditative film that he zeroes in on the theme rather than remaining plot-centric, but this lack of balance leaves us much like Lofthouse and Iris...out in the cold.
This is an unfortunate and an admittedly disappointing turn given the promise of such a story and the scale at which Clooney has been afforded the opportunity to tell it on. Having not read Brooks-Dalton's source material it's impossible to comment on how much of the ideas and themes Mark L. Smith (who also co-wrote “The Revenant”) and Clooney pulled from or missed out on when adapting it, but the idea this comes to be something of a story of catharsis for the Lofthouse character is fine, but it needed more detail, more specificity in the necessary relationships for the emotional impact of what ends up happening to really land. Essentially, the film boils down to this idea that while passionate about his dreams and his career Lofthouse has become obsessive in his focus to the point nothing exists outside of it. Moreover, he's lost focus not on the task at hand, but why he's so driven to discover in the first place or what would ultimately be the benefits of or what the rewards might be if he were to ever actually accomplish his goals. Yes, a character named Jean (Sophie Rundle) spells this out almost word for word to Lofthouse in a flashback, but even this main idea, this thesis statement for the film doesn't take hold of either the movie nor the character of Lofthouse in a fashion that propels us into wanting to see him succeed for the sake of redeeming himself or at least coming to a better understanding of where his importance lies among the infinite stars. Regrettably, this only makes Clooney's choice to have a more meditative than plot-heavy sci-fi thriller all the more cumbersome and drier. It's not that the material isn't here for what Clooney wants to make. For instance, if the parallels between Sully and Lofthouse had begun to be drawn and established sooner this might have allowed more ideas and aspects to be considered from this springboard of having both these characters buck the traditional familial structure in favor of exploring the unknown. “The Midnight Sky” is largely about coming to terms with the decisions one has made in life, but as much as we want to wallow in the impressiveness that is Springall's almost dialogue-free performance or legitimately cool extraneous elements such as the set design of the Ether, the inventive ideas like that of K23's orange-tinged sky being due to the light reflecting off Jupiter's surface, and of course Desplat's score even if it does manage to be intrusive in certain scenes. While obviously impressive on certain fronts though, Clooney's seventh feature film can't match the grandeur of his visuals with his tone or emotional heft. I mean, when the boldest choice in your film is casting someone as a young you instead of going “The Irishman” route and the most impressive thing is that Ethan Peck convincingly pulls off younger Clooney while being directed by older Clooney means there is definitely room for your space movie to improve.
"The Midnight Sky" begins streaming on Netflix on December 23.