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Non-Review Review: The Midnight Sky

The Midnight Sky is an ambitious and sporadically interesting mess.

There are a lot of individual elements that work relatively well in George Clooney’s most recent directorial effort. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this apocalyptic space drama is the way in which is eschews a lot of the stylistic trappings of the recent “sad astronaut” subgenre. Conceptually, The Midnight Sky feels like a companion piece to films like GravityInterstellarThe Martian, First Man, and Ad Astra. It is a story about isolation and about a space mission with the potential to go horribly wrong. However, Clooney gives the film a distinct texture, brighter and bolder.

Drinking it all in.

However, The Midnight Sky never coheres in a satisfying manner. Part of this is simply structural, with Clooney having to consistently cut between two sets of characters in radically different situations in a way that constantly undermines momentum. However, part of this is also narrative, with The Midnight Sky essentially built around a powerhouse closing twenty minutes that are obvious from the opening ten, but have to be delayed and postponed with a series of tonally disjointed episodic adventures to prevent the film from ending too soon.

This is a shame. There are hints of a much better movie in The Midnight Sky, but the film itself gets lost in space.

“Nuke the sky from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

The basic plot of The Midnight Sky is fairly straightforward. The world has been ravaged by something horrific. The Midnight Sky keeps the details of this particular plot point deliberately ambiguous. Indeed, the movie even treats the specifics of a punchline. At one point, a character seems ready to explain what happened, only for the radio to cut out mid-sentence. (“It started with–“) Clooney cleverly frames The Midnight Sky to suggest a variety of apocalypses: one driven by infection, radiation, climate change.

The film seems to suggest the details of the end of the world are incidental. All that matters is that mankind destroyed the planet. The story opens with Clooney’s bearded scientist Augustine Lofthouse manning a communications post in the Arctic. All the other staff have evacuated, but Lofthouse is keeping the lights on. However, the base’s computer registers something incoming. An expedition to one of the moons of Jupiter is returning, prompting Lofthouse to embark on a dangerous mission to establish communication and warn the crew of the nightmare awaiting them.

Planet well.

This is itself an interesting minor twist on the “sad astronaut” genre. Many recent films about space flight emphasise the isolation felt by the astronauts travelling through the void; the son looking for his father in Ad Astra, Neil Armstrong trying to separate himself from his pain in First Man, Mark Watney forced to survive on his own in The Martian, Cooper missing his daughter’s life on his mission in Interstellar, Ryan Stone making the conscious choice that she wants to live in Gravity. Shrewdly, The Midnight Sky inverts that dynamic.

It is very quickly established that the crew on the mission are not especially lonely. They have one another. They have holographic simulations that immerse them in memories of life at home. They play cards together, they gossip, they develop attachments. There is a surprising warmth on board the ship. This is contrasted with the isolation that Lofthouse feels on the surface of the planet in the frozen wastes. It’s a clever inversion of the classic dynamic of these sorts of stories.

Everybody needs a little space now and then.

Clooney plays with that idea in interesting ways. Notably, the film’s production design eschews the “used future” aesthetic that informs so much modern science-fiction, the idea of brutalist and efficient design that leaves little space for humanity. Clooney is a director with a lot of affection for Hollywood history, as demonstrated by the McCarthy era allegory Good Night and Good Luck, the screwball comedy throwback Leatherheads and even the war farce The Monument Men.

While the narrative might not immediately suggest a nostalgic throwback, Clooney is clearly inspired by the early colour science-fiction films of the fifties and sixties, the kind of films that existed before Star Wars. This is most obvious in an early dream sequence that features one of the astronauts imaging life on a thriving red planet, saturated in bright computer-generated colours. Later, she confesses of her trip to the Jupiter moon, “It’s like landing in Oz and seeing real colour for the first time.” That particular reference seems to have informed Clooney’s aesthetic.

Outside looking in.

The space ship in The Midnight Sky is not a rust bucket like those featured in science-fiction since Alien. Instead, it is closer to the design of the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation or the colony ship in Passengers. It is lit as much for mood as for efficiency. It has holographic projectors. It even has technology designed to scan for “alien lifeforms”, a detail that positions it quite firmly in opposition to the themes of alienation that inform so much of the modern astronaut subgenre.

After all, like a lot of contemporary science-fiction, The Midnight Sky seems intended as something of a nostalgic callback to a lost era. Clooney is directly evoking the memory of a time when mankind was excited about spaceflight, when pop culture imagined a vibrant future in the sky. Explaining the plot of the movie, Lofthouse helpfully frames the narrative in such terms, “It’s a space ship far away. Come back from a planet that we thought would be our future. But it didn’t work out that way.”

“Ground control to Commander Tom Adewole.”

This is the conflict at the heart of The Midnight Sky, the contrast between the future that mankind promised itself and the future that actually materialised. Indeed, this idea of possibilities comes up time and time again. On the space ship, Sully and Tom sit down for a regularly scheduled game of rummy, with Tom remarking on Sully’s improbable winning streak. After all, this is a game that starts with “over sixty million” possible permutations, but eventually all those possibilities whittle down to one.

It’s a potent theme, and it is frustrating that The Midnight Sky seems so reluctant to meditate on it. The film signposts its inevitable destination from the outset. It is very clear that the astronauts are going to be confronted with what has happened on Earth and are going to have to make a choice. There are other developments which are so heavily and consciously signposted that they also seem inevitable. However, The Midnight Sky treats them as grand revelations and effectively devolves into a series of delaying tactics designed to keep the movie away from its own heart.

Tundra Road.

The movie has a “twist”, but that twist is very obvious and predictable, simply based on where the movie places its emphasis. Indeed, that twist is a logical development of its core thematic dynamics, particularly with a subplot that finds Lofthouse improbably forced to care for a young child who appears to have been abandoned with nobody to care for her. “I’m the wrong person,” Lofthouse insists. He repeats, “I’m the wrong person.” However, Lofthouse eventually assumes responsibility for the child, but it is very obvious what the movie is suggesting.

However, The Midnight Sky insists on concealing this inevitable thematic development in the clumsiest manner possible. This contributes to the film’s weird structure. The Midnight Sky is convinced that its inevitable outcome will be a “surprise”, and so it stalls in an effort to preserve that surprise until the last possible moment. This is frustrating, as the audience knows what that surprise is from the outset, and there’s more fun to be had playing with it than unwrapping it. The Midnight Sky assumes its audience are cinematically illiterate, and tries to impress them with parlour tricks.

Keep watching the skies.

This would be a problem of itself, but it is compounded by the bizarre tonal mismatch at work. In order to delay the inevitable communication between Lofthouse and the astronauts, the film needs to come up with hurdles for the two. These are just a grab bag of clichés, but they are not clichés that fit together particularly well. Lofthouse wanders into a survival adventure involving wolves and cracked ice, while the astronauts deal with course corrections and space walks. None of this is novel or interesting, and none of it fits with the movie’s otherwise introspective tone.

The Midnight Sky has to keep constantly cutting between space and the Arctic, checking in with the characters. This saps the movie of a lot of momentum; inevitably, one of the threads seems to be gathering speed, only for the film to cut away from it. The problem is compounded by the decision to include a variety of flashbacks that serve to explain Lofthouse’s back story. Actor Ethan Peck offers an impressive vocal impression of Clooney – to the point that it’s possible it was dubbed over – but these serve to push away from the immediacy of what is happening.

A chilling discovery.

All of this is a massive shame. When The Midnight Sky does eventually manage to meander towards its climax in the closing twenty minutes. There’s a lot of really great material there, because it hinges on character drama and tension – there’s a real sense of anxiety about the choices facing the astronauts, and the question of who gets to make the decisions about what happens next. This is the heart of the drama, but it feels overly compressed because The Midnight Sky spent so much time on elements like a mid-movie action sequence involving a snowmobile.

The Midnight Sky has echoes of a much stronger and much more compelling movie buried within it, with its big ideas and thematic resonances. However, the execution is uneven and clumsy. The Midnight Sky seems to suggest at points that mankind lost sight of a better future, but The Midnight Sky itself looses sight of its more interesting ideas.

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