Midnight Sky, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/20/20 13:33:08
If I had to sum up George Clooney’s secondary career as a director to date in just one word, I would probably have to go with “frustrating.” He clearly has admirable ambitions and the projects that he has chosen to date have been films aimed solidly at the adult-minded audience that has been almost entirely overlooked in recent years. The trouble is that as good as his projects may seem in theory, they don’t always add up on the screen. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), based on Chuck Barris’s faux-autobiography, was a cheekily amusing lark and “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005), his stirring recreation of Edward R. Murrow’s determination to take down Joseph McCarthy, was even better and has continued to age beautifully. On the other hand, subsequent projects like “Leatherheads” (2008), “The Ides of March” (2011), “The Monuments Men” (2014) and “Suburbicon” (2017), despite the care and effort that clearly went into them, simply never clicked—they came across like filmed ideas rather than compelling stories and were presented in such a strangely impersonal fashion that you never got the sense that there was a genuine human sensibility guiding things along. His latest directorial effort is “The Midnight Sky” and it may well be his most insufferable work behind the camera to date—a well-meaning but borderline excruciating drama that is set during man’s last days on Earth and which will have most viewers wishing for the end to just hurry up and get there already.The time is nigh—2049, to be specific—as some unnamed and unstoppable cataclysmic event has poisoned to Earth’s atmosphere and is well on its way to killing off all life for good. At a remote Arctic research station, everyone is taking off on a desperate and presumably quixotic flight to evade the inevitable. Everyone, that is, except for Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), a lonely and reclusive astronomer who is already slowly dying of a terminal disease and sees no point to trying to find somewhere else to go. After several days of puttering around on his own, he ends up coming across Iris (Caolinn Springall), a little girl who was apparently somehow left behind during the mass exodus. Unable to contact anyone in the outside world who could send someone to claim Iris, he decides that the two of them will undertake a perilous journey through the cold and snow to another outpost with stronger communications equipment. In a twist that may come as a shock to you, the need to save and protect the little girl, who is also mute to boot, sparks the long-dormant flames of humanity in him and causes him to reflect on the personal happiness that he willingly sacrificed in the solitary pursuit of his work.
Meanwhile, up in space, a spacecraft with five astronauts—Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole (David Oyelowo), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and Maya (Tiffany Boone)—that has spent the last two years on a mission exploring a planet that appears to be capable of sustaining human life, is making its journey home when it sudden loses all communication with Earth. A brief garbled communication from Augustine is enough to let them know that something terrible has happened but before they can do that, the ship and crew suffer a couple of disasters of their own. After finally getting an idea of the magnitude of what has happened back home, they then have to decide whether they should continue their return or make an attempt to reach the new world that they were exploring. Making things even more complicated for Sully is that she has just discovered that she is going to be having a baby with Adewole—will that child be the last of a dying world or the first of a new one.
In interviews promoting “The Midnight Sky,” Clooney has described the film as being a cross between “The Revenant” and “Gravity” as a way of explaining its two seemingly disparate storylines. In truth, the film that he truly seems to be hell-bent on emulating—right down to including a clip of it at one point—is “On the Beach,” Stanley Kramer’s legendary glum and portentous melodrama in which a gaggle of famous faces (including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and, oddly enough, Fred Astaire) played survivors of a nuclear war coming to terms with the fact that the fallout will kill off all remaining survivors in a matter of months. Unfortunately for us all, he has succeeded all too well in that particular task. This is a lumbering and listless work that seems to want to show how humanity manages to survive and thrive in even the most seemingly dire of circumstances—a message that now has more resonance that it did when the film first went into production—but the end result is as chilly and remote as its locations. In fact, there are times when it almost seems as if Clooney is doing his own version of “Quintet” (1979) Robert Altman’s bizarre polar-based end-of-the-world drama but even that film, one of the most divisive in Altman’s filmography, had a sense of style and moments of welcome mordant humor that this one painfully lacks.None of the characters on display are particularly memorable, which is perhaps not the ideal situation for a film in which they are meant to represent mankind’s final hope. Mark L. Smith’s screenplay, based on the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” also stumbles because it never figures out a way to present its parallel storylines in a way where they actually mesh into something where each narrative enhances the other. Instead, the two storylines seem to be competing for space and just when you are almost about to develop some kind of rooting interest in what happens in one of them, the scene abruptly shifts to the other.
There is an even bigger flaw to the film, one that is so glaringly obvious and cringe-worthy that it basically kills the entire thing before it even begins. (I will give no specifics but those of you fearful of spoiler may want to check out here.) The whole narrative thrust of the film is one that builds to two shocking revelations that are presumably meant to cause to go back and reevaluate everything that we have seen up to that point. The trouble is that most viewers will be able to figure out pretty early on exactly what those two developments will be and will therefore be deeply underwhelmed at the presumably emotional climax in which all is revealed. In the case of one of the revelations, it is dumb and crashingly obvious but it doesn’t really do much damage to the proceedings as a whole. The second on, on the other hand, is not only really obvious (despite a clunky moment in the opening that has been inserted solely to throw viewers off) but it winds up subverting the entire narrative because there is no way that anyone who twigs to what is actually going on can muster up the kind of emotional investment in the material required to make it work. Perhaps in the book, where you have the ability to picture the material in your own mind, the conceit might have paid off but in the far more literal nature of film, it does not work at all and it essentially drags the entire film down with it in the process.George Clooney is not an inherently bad filmmaker and even here, there are some elements in “The Midnight Sky” that do work. There are a few interesting visual moments here and there (a scene with several of the astronauts working on the ship outside is well-staged, even if Clooney inexplicably has them singing “Sweet Caroline” while it is going on), a sometimes striking score by Alexandre Desplat and there are even a couple of bits towards the end where you begin to get a sense of the grandly epic meditation on guilt and redemption that Clooney presumably had in mind when he set off to make it in the first place. However, there is not nearly enough of them to help make up for the pretentious mess surrounding them. Even the current “Greenland,” for all of its hokeyness and the walking bag of bluster that is Gerard Butler at its center, came closer to getting an authentic and resonant look into the mindset of ordinary people facing the prospect of annihilation than this one can muster. This one, on the other hand, offers viewers virtually nothing that they have not already seen before and most likely in a variation more lively and entertaining than the one presented here.
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