George Clooney has been on such a directorial cold streak lately with Monuments Men (2014) and Suburbicon (2017) that it wouldn’t take much to remind moviegoers of his former filmmaking prowess.
Thanks to a major assist from Netflix’s deep pockets, he’s made good on that second chance with The Midnight Sky, a flawed but entertaining sci-fi adventure, bolstered by slick special effects and a small but appealing cast.
Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight, and ably adapted by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant), the film stars a Letterman-bearded Clooney as the cumbersomely named Dr. Augustine Lofthouse, one of the last survivors of an ambiguous apocalyptic event that’s well on its way to eradicating all human life on Earth.
Alone at an arctic research station, he awaits his end from either the rapidly approaching toxic air or the terminal illness ravaging his body — only to find that young mute Iris (Caoilinn Springall, excellent in her debut film performance) stayed behind when her mother abandoned the base with the rest of the scientists.
While adjusting to his new responsibility, Augustine seemingly randomly performs a search for active space missions and sends a message to Aether, the lone remaining ship, whose crew is mystified why they haven’t received a message from NASA in over a week.
Suddenly committed to updating these voyagers and encouraging them to return to the distant hospitable planet they’d just scouted, but unable to get the transmission through due to faulty equipment, Augustine sets off on snowmobile — with Iris in tow — to the nearest base while the astronauts travel perilously through uncharted territory after being knocked off course.
It’s a convenient convergence of time-sensitive issues, but it makes for pretty thrilling storytelling, especially on the spacecraft, where the formidable ensemble of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir and Tiffany Boone (Amazon‘s “Hunters”) are a joy to behold as colleagues invested in each other’s lives and their unified intergalactic quest.
Moving amid sleek sets, augmented by gorgeous special effects within the vessel and beyond its walls that smartly convey the wonder and terror of being in space, these explorers and their conflicts are so intriguing that it’s somewhat of a drag to return to The Augustine and Iris Show.
The interspersing of awkward flashbacks with young Augustine (Ethan Peck, trying too hard to mimic Clooney) unwittingly proving that he loves his work more than girlfriend Jean (Sophie Rundle, Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders”) further increase that divide, but effectively demonstrate how committed he is to mankind’s survival beyond Earth.
In his exploration of whether Augustine achieves that goal for the Aether crew, Clooney recaptures the sophisticated balance of tension, humor and heart that define his best directorial work (Good Night, and Good Luck; The Ides of March), while also proving that he can manage a big budget and give a respectable performance of his own at the same time.
Few artists can handle that many responsibilities this well, and while The Midnight Sky is far from perfect, it’s just great to see Clooney make a good film again.
Available to stream starting Dec. 23 via Netflix