The Midnight Sky

Year: 2020
Production Co: Anonymous Content
Studio: Netflix
Director: George Clooney
Producer: George Clooney/Grant Heslov
Writer: Mark L Smith
Cast: George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone

I think I'm the only filmgoer who's seen through Gorgeous George's facade. He's so beloved by the press and such a sex symbol to his many fans we're distracted away from the fact that he's just not that great a director.

The Ides of March was good, Good Night, and Good Luck was great and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a pretty assured debut. But Leatherheads was a dud. Suburbicon was a dud. The Monuments Men was unwatchable. He's backed plenty of turkeys as a producer and star, and if you take complete stock, his creative cachet is way down.

So I unconsciously (and perhaps unfairly) had my eyes open for flaws in Midnight Sky, and while it's not the waste of celluloid his worst films have been, it confirms my suspicions about him.

Given free reign by Netflix like so many other directors lately, he directs and stars in the story of the world in the 2040s after there's been some terrible catastrophe and everyone's either dying or dead. Lofthouse (Clooney) is a grizzled, bearded old scientist who's stayed behind to man an Arctic research station. Not because he can do anything about what's happened, but because he's suffering something terminal for which he needs regular dialysis and won't live long anyway.

In flashback sequences we see the rest of the station crew lifting off in giant rotor-driven aircraft, leaving Lofthouse to plod around the base, have his meals in the empty mess area, give himself his treatments and scan the heavens for something.

By the time a third or more of the film has passed, we've also seen a few flashback sequences of a young scientist convinced humanity can find a home on other planets. After meeting a young woman at a reception, the two apparently have a child (I think - like the first half of The Monuments Men, the details are very muddy and indistinct), but he's so consumed with his work he doesn't want a bar of it, opting to not even meet his little girl and barely even waving goodbye when his lady takes the baby and leaves him. You might twig to who the guy is pretty quick, but it wasn't obvious to me until almost the end.

Back in the present day, it's soon apparent Lofthouse is scanning for manned spacecraft throughout the solar system. He only finds one, the Aether, which has been to a habitable moon of Jupiter and is returning home to Earth. Lofthouse makes it his mission to contact the ship and warn them that the Earth they knew is gone – they have to return to the planet they discovered and start new lives.

But the equipment at the base isn't up to the task of interplanetary communication so he realises he has to travel to another base further north where the radio antenna is bigger. And he'll have company – finding a young mute girl hiding in the base kitchen.

Initially all he wants is to contact the survivors who left, figuring one of them has mistakenly left her behind and getting her out of his base. But they're long gone and Lofthouse has no chance to but to accept and befriend the girl, Iris, (Caoilinn Springall), taking her with him on a snowmobile to find the other base.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Aether is increasingly worried. They have a very cryptic communication from Earth thanks to Lofthouse but haven't been able to raise anyone else. But just as Lofthouse and Iris arrive at the new base – just barely – an asteroid storm engulfs the Aether, causing damage they have to do a stomach-plunging spacewalk to repair, one not all of them will come back from.

It's up to the Aether crew – commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), mission specialist Sully (Felicity Jones) who's carrying his baby, Maya (Tiffany Boone), pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and Sanchez (Demian Bichir) – whether to return to the moon of Jupiter they found alone to try and keep humanity going or return to Earth in the hope their loved ones have made it through the cataclysm.

Altogether there are pluses and minuses. The design of the technical machinery, bases and spacecraft is good, and the relationship between Iris and Lofthouse is cute, thanks mostly to Springall's wide-eyed innocence and acceptance of him.

But it felt like two completely separate stories happening that had the most tenuous of connections (and you'll roll your eyes at how contrived the twist is – he just happens to contact that particular ship?). Plus I couldn't help but be reminded of the cardinal law of fiction during the asteroid bombardment and spacewalk; that every scene advance the story and change the characters.

The ship is damaged as soon as they try to talk to Lofthouse. They all go out in spacesuits to repair it, then asteroids come again, so even though they've repaired the ship they lose a character who was pretty superfluous anyway, then get back to talking to Lofthouse, picking up exactly where they were before (that's not a criticism of the actor or her role, the entire Aether crew could easily have been a single astronaut).

What's more, it was a scene of shrapnel badly damaging a spaceship in zero gravity with all the exploding, sunlit shards of metal and sunshade spinning away. Remind you of any other George Clooney movie set in space featuring a spaceship ripped to shreds by space junk?

Instead of looking like a jaded scientist who's supposed to be ill Clooney just looks bedraggled, tired and bored. He needs to plant his charming grin back on and do Ocean's Fourteen before anyone else catches on.

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