Apocalyptic films have taken on a different meaning for viewers since COVID-19 arrived. The idea of the world ending hits closer to home now in ways that we had only imagined before. Throw in the fact that the ever real and present danger of climate change’s impact on our populace is here, and the scenario in George Clooney’s latest film, THE MIDNIGHT SKY, seems all too plausible. In a film that should be exhilarating, emotional, and gutwrenching, this apocalyptic film fails to deliver any of those things despite its stunning visuals and score.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY is the latest directorial project of George Clooney. He joins a cast featuring Felicity Jones (The Aeronauts), David Oyelowo (Don’t Let Go), Tiffany Boone (“Little Fires Everywhere”) with Demián Bichir (The Nun), and Kyle Chandler (Manchester by the Sea), and introducing Caoilinn Springall. Despite the talented cast at hand in this apocalyptic film, none succeed to inflate this ambitious film’s storyline past the Earth’s atmosphere.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY is a film comprised of two narratives that would have been better off as two separate films. One narrative focuses on Augustine (George Clooney), an isolated scientist up in the Arctic who is trying to slowly buy time as his body succumbs to terminal illness. He’s the only one left after an unspoken cataclysmic event takes place three weeks prior to the film’s beginning. Not much is shared about the event, but that’s okay. There are enough hints throughout the film that allow the audience to fill in the blanks: dying birds, radio silence, and more.
While Augustine seems resigned to spending his last days alone, the realization that Aether, a space expedition team will be returning back to Earth, has no warning of what they are coming home to, the scientist prepares to find a stronger radio signal out in the Arctic. However, it won’t be easy. He must navigate the perils that this event has left behind. There’s the natural danger of traveling through the Arctic. And the added complication of the mute child, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), who appears to have been left behind when the other scientists evacuated.
The other narrative in this film focuses on Aether, which proves to be the weaker narrative of the two. The team has wrapped up its two-year expedition of K23, a planet that had been theorized to sustain life, but they are unable to get in contact with anyone. Making their way through space without any idea of what they are coming home to, tensions start to increase. But the character development of the individual team members does not. In fact, these characters are difficult to connect to, even as they navigate the natural dangers of space. And that is this narrative’s ultimate downfall – a failure to connect. This despite the quite obvious stakes in place for the team.
Both narratives, when separated, could easily work as two separate films. However, in trying to meld these two narratives together, one suffers more than the other. Coupled with an ambitious screenplay written by Mark L. Smith, which is adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel Good Morning, Midnight, THE MIDNIGHT SKY highlights how some novels aren’t easy to adapt for the screen. There’s a limited amount of time to get to know the characters and, for the sake of the plot, we lose the opportunity to actually get to know the Aether team as they raise to get home. This has the unfortunate impact of making it difficult for the audience to connect so that, when certain catastrophic moments happen, the emotional devastation we should feel is lessened as a result.
One addition to the Aether-related narrative that works to provide much-needed hope in the situation is Felicity Jones’s character Sully and the character’s pregnancy. While the character is not pregnant in the novel, Jones’ real-life pregnancy was worked into the narrative. This has the impact of providing groundbreaking representation of pregnancy in a sci-fi drama, but also offers a light at the end of the tunnel for humanity if the characters survive. The only downside is, outside of this pregnancy, there’s not much else to take in personality-wise from the character. While Jones tries hard to inject charisma and charm into the role, there’s not much for this talented actress to work off. That note can also be applied to the rest of the cast featured in the Aether. All talented within their own right, it’s difficult to watch this cast try to lift these personality-less characters off the page.
Another narrative item of note is the utilization of flashbacks in the story to highlight the character Augustine’s life regrets. We learn through these flashbacks that a younger Augustine (played by a miscast Ethan Peck), theorized about K23 being able to sustain life. Far more obsessed with his work than building a family, his wife takes his daughter and leaves him. While these flashbacks provide further insight into the character, they were unnecessary. George Clooney’s handling of Augustine already gives us a sense of Augustine’s grappling with regret and mortality without needing to go back to his youth. If anything, this inclusion of flashbacks takes away from the overall narrative and slows down the pacing of a film bogged down already by its ambitious story.
Visually, this film is an appetizing inducing buffet for the eyes. In a year where big-screen theatres are shuttered, there is a pang of sadness knowing we won’t get to see this film on the big screen. Because the visuals are engineered beautifully, especially when we switch over to the space narrative. The color tones utilized also help to highlight the difference between life, decay, and the sterile science field all characters are touched by in the film. There are warm tones utilized throughout the Aether narrative, visually reminding us the hope the team clings onto as they bring back news of sustainability to their home planet. These warm tones show up again when select team members reflect on memories they’ve bottled containing their loved ones. We revert to cooler tones when the team exits the safety of the comfortable space station, reminding us that there are still very present dangers for the crew outside. Sterile whites and cool blues are used in the production and costume design, despite the warmth provided by the technology, for the station.
A similar approach is taken back on Earth. The cold, nearly colorless expanse of the Arctic that Augustine must navigate highlights the harsh climate that he is trying to survive in post-apocalyptic event. Hope, again, rises up in warm tones. We see this in the attire Augustine and Iris wear, the dull throbbing yellows of the lights in the Conservatory he resides in, and in the blood transfusions he undergoes to try to buy time. It makes it all the more jarring once Augustine and Iris start making the trek to find a more stable, stronger source of communication. The colors on their clothing make them all the noticeable as they wade their way through an endless sea of white ice and snow. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe, production designer Jim Bissell, and costume designer Jenny Eagan prove their handiwork in THE MIDNIGHT SKY, working together to create notable sets, costumes, and visuals for us to ogle while slogging our way through the actual story.
Overall, THE MIDNIGHT SKY is a miss for director George Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith. The overall story is too ambitious to land successfully. With the two narratives at play, it’s clear one wins over the other, but has the result of weakening the finished product. While the cast brought on to portray the Aether team are all exceptionally talented, a failure on both the page and in direction creates lackluster portrayals on-screen. There’s no personality or life in them for all the cast’s best effort. Clooney himself provides the more notable performance as a man grappling with mortality and regret. However, what goodwill he generates from his performance ends up freezing cold with the film’s abrupt ending. If you’re interested in just taking in the visuals of the film, I say go for it. If you go watch it for anything else, you’ll walk away frustrated.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY will be released in selected theaters and on Netflix on December 23, 2020.