The Midnight Sky tries to match an arctic ordeal with a space journey. That’s not a terrible idea on its face — the only way we could truly get a sense of the inhospitality of space is by enduring the parts of our world world where nature is actively trying to kill you. The problem with this film is that it is terminally serious.
Directed by and starring George Clooney, the movie opens in 2049. Almost all of humanity has died. The world has been FUBAR’d by something coyly referred to as “The Event.” We are introduced to Augustine (Clooney) three weeks after said event. He is a survivor of some not-yet-fatal illness requiring dialysis. For reasons soon to be explained, he has remained behind at an arctic radar station, even as the other survivors head to their bunkers in what’s left of the cities.
Doom hangs heavy over Augustine in this abandoned station. He stirs the pieces on a chessboard as if waiting for Death to challenge him to a game. He even has a small Anubis statue on his desk for us to glimpse — a reminder that he’s moribund. Alexandre Desplat’s cellos groan a threnody for him as he makes his rounds in the dark cold base. With a close-cropped head and increasingly snow-clogged facial hair, Clooney is the quarantine beard winner of the season. When brooding, he looks like an existentialist beaver.
Augustine is not alone, though. One silent little girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), has stowed away on the base. When their communications equipment fails, Augustine and Iris head off for an even more remote snow base, in hopes of finding equipment that’ll communicate with a space fleet, which has been seeking a possible home for humans in the orbit of Jupiter.
The Midnight Sky features a very pretty spaceship called the Aether — Jim Bissell’s interiors have Art Nouveau squiggles, cubbyholes for bonsai trees, bamboo groves, honeycombed wings, and the transparent solar panels that look like hand blown glass. Inside, the crew interacts with shaky holodeck images, electronically wavering memories of the families and cats they left behind. The ship is returning from a mysterious rendezvous with planet K-23. It’s a newly discovered moon of Jupiter, with enough sub-surface warmth that it might be settled by earthlings, even if the sun is but a pale, pea-sized spec from that distance.
Clooney isn’t exactly deft at introducing us to the characters aboard the Aether. Kyle Chandler, playing one of the crew, certainly has a face like a traditional ’60s astronaut. But the crew’s one-dimensional chipperness makes us suspect they’re all on a light dose of tranquilizers. The captain (David Oyelowo) has been mating with his first mate Sully (Felicity Jones) and she’s pregnant.
The Midnight Sky turns into a three-way parfait: Clooney and young Caoilinn trudging through the ice, fending off wolves and surviving broken ice. Meanwhile, we continue the voyage of the Aether, including a meteor shower that turns lethal — business that worked better in Brian De Palma’s on-again, off-again Mission to Mars, where a small round droplet of blood hovering in zero gravity was the harbinger of horrible death.
Lastly are the flashbacks — portraits of Augustine as a young man. Here he is played by Ethan Peck, an arrogant astrophysicist, bearded in a different way than he is in the future. (Peck looks distractingly like Che Guevara).
It’s hard to submit to this part of The Midnight Sky’s fatiguing back and forthing, if one remembers quite well what Clooney looked like when he was young. And it’s hard to judge a man for being more interested in space travel than in fathering a child, after an irked girlfriend lets Augustine know that a pregnancy scare was just a scare: “I’m not pregnant. You’re safe.” The movie suggests Augustine deserved to be marooned in the polar wastes for shirking fatherhood. It’s particularly tough to make that argument in a film that illustrates the point: “Who’d want to bring a child into a world like this?”
I’m confident Clooney will bounce back, recalling how masterfully he faced outer space in Alfonso Cuaron’s exciting Gravity. He’s the heir to figures like Clark Gable and Cary Grant, who were adroit actors as well as movie stars. The Midnight Sky is based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s best-seller Good Morning, Midnight; it’s an open question whether the author pinched the title from Exene and John Doe’s title tune from the album Under the Big Black Sun, or whether Brooks-Dalton knew about the Jean Rhys novel about the drinking life in Paris. Her prose has a flat precision, anchoring the fantasy with details of arctic-base life; she uses a bit of poetry to drown out the moans of serious science fiction fans picking out the scientific inconsistencies.
The mute ‘n’ cute Springall has an eerily impassive face, and she charms a viewer with some mischief involving a dish of peas. And the higher the altitude, the sturdier Felicity Jones gets — she’s up a great deal farther than she was in the balloon thriller The Aeronauts and is game-faced in a space helmet.
As with Ad Astra and Interstellar, the blame for the dullness of The Midnight Sky should go to the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky — he’s the grandmaster of the depresso space voyage, thanks to all the awe filmmakers have for 1972’s Solaris. (Clooney even starred in an English remake of Solaris in 2002). Tarkovsky is the source for the idea that space travel is just another way to distance ourselves from the people we love, and of course, God.