Review: 'The Midnight Sky'
I’m a George Clooney fan.
I enjoy his work as a movie actor. Some of my personal favorites are: Three Kings (1999), O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), and The American (2010).
He’s directed nine movies, my favorite among those is Good Night, and Good Luck (2002) about the CBS News legend Edward R. Morrow.
In The Midnight Sky, he is both director and star.
It’s a science fiction story set in the near future about a mission to a soon-to-be discovered moon of Jupiter. In the story, the moon is of scientific interest since it has the capability of sustaining human life.
In real life, we humans have scanned the cosmos with powerful radio telescopes in search of just such a celestial body, a Plan B for the survival of our species. Our sun won’t burn forever. Our precious resources will eventually run out.
Here, a small crew of astronauts are returning from a successful mission—the discovery of a nearby planet that could be the solution to our dilemma. They are overjoyed.
The trouble is, they find themselves in a Twilight Zone moment and are having trouble contacting anyone back here on earth in order to share the good news.
They’re not sure if the problem is on their end or if something more ominous is happening. And because of that, they are more than a little worried.
Back here on earth, something terrifying and unimaginable has indeed happened. The world’s population is being mysteriously erased.
One of the lone survivors is a elderly scientist living alone in the frigid cold of an Arctic research facility.
Besides trying to make sense of the baffling events that are rapidly unfolding, he has problems of his own to deal with.
He is battling cancer and knows that his life clock is running out. He desperately tries to reach the crew of the spaceship to alert them about what they will face when the return.
It’s a dramatic plot. Actually two, parallel dramatic plots that are the driving force of The Midnight Sky.
It is a movie brimming with suspense. On paper, at least.
To his credit, Clooney turns in another solid performance as Augustine, the dying scientist.
He appears sickly, frail and old, sporting a David Letterman-style, full white beard.
Augustine is a brilliant mind in a rapidly declining body being kept alive with regular, self-administered blood transfusions. His willpower and sense of duty fuel is spirit.
He thinks he’s stranded and alone, until he discovers a little girl who has somehow sneaked into his living quarters seeking out his companionship and protection, something he is barely able to offer.
In addition to saving the crew and whatever is left of his fellow humans, he finds himself responsible for the safety of a helpless child.
Life on the returning ship, a sprawling space station with rotating appendages reminiscent of the Jupiter vehicle in the movie 2010 (1984) is tense.
The lack of contact with Earth is troubling, for the ship’s commander, Sully (Felicity Jones) and her small, skeleton crew.
And as we’ve seen in other recent space epics like Gravity (2013) space travel is fraught with dangers like destructive meteors that can savagely rip spaceships apart and puncture the air-tight space suits of its occupants.
Predictably perhaps, The Midnight Sky incorporates that into the plot, along with another borrowed element of a damaged, external ship component that requires repair and replacement via a dangerous spacewalk, something borrowed right out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only thing missing here is HAL 9000.
Extended space travel has its only issues of separation and loneliness. Here, the crew members comfort themselves in a less-than-totally-virtual holodeck like the one featured in the TV Series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).
The is comfort revisiting the past for the characters, both here and in space.
Clooney’s story is interlaced with flashbacks of his failed relationship when he was a young man.
On the ship, people retreat to artificially created snippets from their past such as an urban stoop from a childhood memory, complete with family, friends and pets. It’s the kind of simulated recreational environment that the crewmembers of Star Trek: the Next Generation enjoyed.
Unfortunately, memories, neither real nor artificial are able to save anyone from the escalating drama that unfolds in The Midnight Sky.
It’s intense. Perhaps not the first choice of movie entertainment for people already suffering the emotional weight of our dark COVID-19 winter.
Despite being a bit depressing, it is certainly suspenseful and entertaining.
It is also a bit preposterous at times when it comes to the depiction of survival in brutal, sub-zero arctic conditions and the science and physics of functioning and surviving in cold vacuum of deep space.
No spoilers here.
It’s tempting to talk about the big reveal at the end of the movie, but that would also be unfair.
All I can say is that it’s a plot device that we’ve seen in other movies from time to time, like Fight Club (1999), A Beautiful Mind (2001) Life of Pi (2012), and Adrift (2018). It even pops up in the movie Gravity, with a strong connection to The Midnight Sky.
Suffice it to say that we’ve seen this plot twist before. You’ll recognize it when you see it.
All this is not to say that The Midnight Sky isn’t worth watching. A lot of it works, despite the fact that a lot of it is borrowed.
Unlike other aging male superstars who present themselves in an impossible mission of appearing forever young on screen, Clooney seems to embrace the process of growing older.
He does it with grace and dignity. And honesty. Though I doubt that he actually cuts his own hair with a Flowbee as he claimed in a recent "CBS Sunday Morning" interview.
I’ll let him slide on that one. Everyone has the right to embellish a little, now and then.
What I particularly liked and appreciated about The Midnight Sky was the cautionary tale about our failing job as the curators of the planet and the consequent necessity of having to relocate somewhere else in some other galaxy.
On that level, The Midnight Sky is a sobering wakeup call for all of us.
The Midnight Sky is on Netflix and in theaters now.