The Midnight Sky is yet another movie whose perception will be permanently altered by the rise of COVID-19. We have been subjected to a global encounter with our own mortality: Millions have been ill. Billions know someone who has. Many who have died did so alone. Here then, is a movie that shows us a world without us. The character played by George Clooney staggers across a howling tundra in the throes of its Great Dying. Birds plop into the snow, writhing and croaking their death rattles. Polar bear bones litter the topography. It’s impossible to look on such a barren heap and not feel more fragile: Everything we have could be so quickly taken away.
Based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the film takes place in one of those near-futures, where our current screw-ups have flowered into full apocalyptic doom. (I don’t know if the book defines the cataclysm, but the movie never does. Whatever the inconvenient truth may be, it’s hard to get out of the headspace that our collective irresponsibility is the true culprit.) The air turns toxic, and the sky begins to resemble Revelation. People scramble underground, but this salvation is only temporary. It’s Alas, Babylon, only worse.
Up in the Arctic Circle, Augustine Lofthouse (that is a ridiculous name for a character) mans a research station that serves as humanity’s pitiful last outpost. Augustine was a renowned scientist, hell-bent on finding habitable worlds. This one-track zeal for his work causes Augustine to alienate his wife and daughter. Now, grouchy and wracked with a terminal illness, he can only down copious amounts of whiskey, listen to sad country songs, and wait for all the clocks to stop ticking.
This slow dance with oblivion gets interrupted when Augustine uncovers a stowaway: A mute little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) reveals herself at the station and latches on to our hero. He’s prickly to her at first, but–damn, whadda ya know–Augustine slowly thaws to his new companion. He gains another burst of purpose when he discovers that a group of astronauts has just left Jupiter, and is heading back to Earth. To stop the team from making a suicide landing, Augustine and Iris have to make a dangerous trek across the wasteland and get the signal out in time.
Cut to the spaceship, which sits alongside the Clooney plot like oil and water. An intrepid crew, unaware of their home planet’s fate, has discovered a habitable moon orbiting Jupiter, and is heading home to announce the news. They’re a diverse squad, kinda like that group that blows up the asteroid in Deep Impact. This part of the story is frustratingly undercooked, so I can’t tell you much about these characters, except their genders and nationalities, and that they all talk science real good: There’s a pregnant British woman (Felicity Jones), a Black commander (David Oyelowo), a generic WASPy dude (Kyle Chandler), a Black woman–who I think was the flight engineer or something (Tiffany Boone), and an Older Mexican man (Demián Bichir). These are all fine actors, but the movie just didn’t devote enough time or energy for me to give a hoot in hell about any of them.
This lack of vested interest isn’t helped by the erratic pace of the script. As adapted by Mark L. Smith, Midnight moves in maddening fits and starts, punctuating tedious scenes with one frenetic crisis after another. The jarring shifts from the North Pole to Deep Space probably played better in the book, but here they hamstring any momentum the movie generates. As a result, the final third of the movie, which is meant to be a crescendo of action beats and emotional finales, hits the ground with a dusty thunk.
The movie owes a huge debt to Clooney. Like his buddy Brad Pitt in Ad Astra, Clooney gives Midnight a needed jolt of star wattage. His Augustine (seriously, was the name Maximillian von Cragglestein already taken somewhere?) combines sturdy brilliance and sheepdog sadness, and it gives the film a gripping emotional center. It speaks to the film’s narrative imbalance that Augustine is a more compelling character than all the people on the spaceship combined.
As director, Clooney gives the film a sufficiently epic feel. Midnight brims with beautiful, wide shots of the tundra–a magnificent desolation. The special effects pop as well as they do in Astra or The Martian, or any of the other half-dozen sci-fi spectacles from which this movie derives obvious inspiration. For all its flaws, Clooney’s film is never visually boring.
It probably feels like I’ve bagged on this movie a lot to still slap three stars at the top of this review. Well, that’s the because the experience of The Midnight Sky is undeniably enhanced by the times in which it was released: The terror of where we are adds a frightening subtext to this cautionary tale of where we might be headed. Augustine is isolated and sick, watching the world implode around him. For anyone who’s quarantined or felt helpless from a distance, it’s impossible to watch a movie like this and not feel something. The Midnight Sky may not have been a response to the pandemic, but it could’ve fooled me.
119 min. PG-13. Netflix.