The Midnight Sky (2020)
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith
Starring: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck
George Clooney is no stranger to space-based fare, his starring turns in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris in 2002 and Alfonso Cuarón’s all-time great Oscar-winner Gravity (2013) being two unique and well respected films that he experienced on both sides of the camera. In The Midnight Sky, his on-screen presence is bound solely to Earth, but his directorial focus takes us from the harsh climates of a post-apocalyptic North Pole to the moons of Jupiter and everywhere in between, his work clearly drawing inspiration from Messrs Soderbergh and Cuarón but ultimately lacking the same level of sophistication.
Adapted from the novel “Good Morning Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton, and distributed worldwide by Netflix, The Midnight Sky tells two parallel stories – one of the last man living on Earth’s disaster-ravaged surface, and the other of a crew of astronauts returning from a voyage across the galaxy. Starring Clooney himself as the Earth-bound character sending signals into the sky in the hope of reaching fellow members of his species, and Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo as two of the astronauts setting course to return home to a planet that has all-but ended unbeknownst to them, The Midnight Sky tackles relevant themes such as climate change, generational responsibility and deep-rooted regret as its action transpires. Yet, despite a strong base from which a talented director like Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; The Ides of March) could operate, The Midnight Sky is a self-serious and unintentionally cheesy science-fiction-drama that feels completely lifeless.
For a film released in 2020 and set largely in CG-scapes, the CGI is awful. It’s awful, but also inescapable. And it can’t be overlooked because Clooney highlights it with long, swooping shots and the use of uplifting moments in the score as if to evoke the epicness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the sheer magnitude of Interstellar. It’s a film that feels every bit the product of a director inexperienced with integrating CG, Clooney borrowing from the free-flowing shots of Cuarón’s work in Gravity but without the same meaning or experiential purpose. This is most evident and damaging in establishing shots where Clooney’s work highlights every fault in the video game level graphics, especially as regards space stations and far-galaxy planets, but there’s an outdated approach across the board of pushing the CG onto the monitors in every location, of which there are many even in the film’s quieter and more grounded moments with Clooney on Earth. These are CG computer graphics that hint at some idealistic future of being able to endlessly navigate several screens at once with the swipe of a hand, but it is quite clear that none of it is functional, and the way it is plastered onto the monitors to a standard just above being a bad meme, makes the entire film feel less “idealistic future” and more mid-budget 2005 studio film. In short… outdated, old and rubbish.
It doesn’t help that The Midnight Sky is also photographed poorly. Like TV, but not the cinematic TV of the likes of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Breaking Bad’, more the TV of ‘Casualty’ and ‘CSI: Miami’. The camera is always panning, swooping around without any real intention. It’s not disorientating – the visuals remain well focused – but it would be a stretch to suggest such constant movement is a purposeful storytelling device, and it is clear very early on that it does nothing to improve the overall experience. It feels cheap, and comes across as rushed or even patronising, and the vast and over the top colour palette only force this thought more and more. It’s a film that is aiming to look like the great post-apocalyptic movies and space movies of eras gone by, but at times looks no more convincing or cinematic than Spy Kids or Shark Boy vs Lava Girl.
What’s worse is that unlike those two children’s movies, The Midnight Sky isn’t funny, nor is it even fun. It is slow, but not patient. Stories overlap from different timelines, different planets, different characters. It’s the end of the world, but also the start of another, but also the character is dying, and we are asked to question whether he is going insane. There’s a lot going on and it’s all thrown at the screen in such a way that indicates a lack of control. It’s like Clooney is trying to direct a character study, but the plot is absolutely event driven. As a result, the film doesn’t quite know what it is, forcing progression in moments and feeling overly drawn out in others. It feels messy, broken even.
Key to this certain disparity between directorial intent and the content the director is adapting for the screen is the woeful dialogue. For a film with so few words relative to other mainstream dramas, and each delivered at a slow pace, the exchanges are incredibly cliché and almost entirely expository in nature. It’s lazy. Clooney’s Augustine speaks to a small girl entirely in exposition – “the signal isn’t strong enough”, “we have to talk to them to let them know we’re okay”, etc. – and when it’s not his character, it’s David Oyelowo talking into a computer about the history of the characters on the space station and their mission, or one of his crew mates explaining how they’re doing their work for their family. You’d think the exposition would eventually stop when all the characters are introduced and the circumstances regarding their journey have been laid out, but it doesn’t. It never does. It’s as unrelenting as the bad CG, but even more damaging to the overall experience.
What’s worse is that there are no reasons to care.
Flashbacks to Augustine’s youth aren’t presented as if moments of contention or regret, but moments of fallacy; B Movie stuff where his love interest tells him her opinion and he just contemplates it without question or debate, or even a hint towards a wider meaning other than to reinforce the character’s already very clear purpose and easy to predict plot twist. These moments are key to the narrative, but they’re forced in like the plot development is squashed into the minor dialogue exchanges, leaving a film that feels not only lifeless to look at, but has characters who barely register a human emotion or speak like normal people. The Midnight Sky is a film about humanity, yet features virtually none of it.
Ultimately derivative of the great films it aims to replicate, and entirely unfaithful to the human experience, the genre of science fiction and the whole practice of reasonable book-to-film adaptations, George Clooney’s seventh feature directorial effort thinks itself remarkable, but is far from being so.