The Midnight Sky review: A tale of two space epics, neither interesting

THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)George Clooney as Augustine. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020
THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)George Clooney as Augustine. Cr. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX ©2020 /

The Midnight Sky aims to tell an ambitious, double-barreled interplanetary narrative, but neither story takes flight, resulting in a poorly paced jumble of unremarkable characters.

Just in time for the holidays, George Clooney has teamed up with Netflix for a would-be space blockbuster that ended up on streaming — an inevitable spot for a film of this attempted scope. Although The Midnight Sky attempts to follow in the footsteps of other space epics like GravityThe Martian, and Interstellar, the film struggles to strike the right balance between its two narratives, and isn’t able to leave orbit.

Produced, directed by, and starring George Clooney, The Midnight Sky tells two stories of humanity searching for another hospitable planet in the not-so-distant future when Earth has become inhabitable. A lone, terminally ill scientist (Clooney) stationed in the arctic begins a battle against the elements to warn a returning crew of astronauts (led by Felicity Jones) that the planet they’re coming back to isn’t the same as the one they left. The film budgets its time so poorly, though, that both narratives end up feeling half baked — although, Jones’ half of the film comes out feeling a little more cohesive than Clooney’s.

By design, The Midnight Sky juggles dual narratives that are supposed to intertwine with and complement each other in a way that propels both narratives forward, strengthening them in turn. The issue, though, is that neither story is strong on its own, so neither has the capacity to enhance its would-be complementary narrative. On earth is the alcoholic and perpetually grumpy Augustine (Clooney), a once-brilliant scientist who has since fallen from grace, haunted by his past.

Bizarrely enough, Clooney feels like he’s playing second fiddle in his own movie. Augustine isn’t nearly as meaty of a role as he might sound on paper. He doesn’t have much dialogue, nor do we get any sense of purpose or drive in him besides doing things for “the good of humanity.” He’s fundamentally flat as a character, and his journey across the arctic isn’t nearly as urgent as it should be, especially in comparison to what’s going on in space.

Clooney himself isn’t bad, per se, but it’s certainly not his best performance. The role isn’t the most forgiving one, but Clooney’s turn here doesn’t help things. It’s difficult to discern any sort of personality or vitality underneath that bushy beard of his, and we get the impression that pulling triple duty as producer, director, and star may have strained his performance.

To the film’s credit, Felicity Jones and Co. fare marginally better. From a storytelling perspective, their narrative is much stronger, if a little vague: a group of astronauts returning from a long-term voyage, unaware that Earth isn’t the same planet they departed years ago. The Midnight Sky meanders quite a bit in its first half, so the space narrative doesn’t get off to the strongest start, but there’s a shift around the last 45 minutes, and the film’s last act does liven up thanks to some genuine tension. Without a doubt, the film’s most (and only) memorable scene is a surprisingly heart-wrenching death: Tiffany Boone sells her minor role, and some stunning visual effects make for a kill that is one of the few aspects that is likely to stay with viewers a week or so from now when we’ve forgotten the rest of the film.

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Unfortunately, though, as great as that one scene is, the rest falls painfully flat. Just as with Clooney’s story, the characters inhabiting the spaceship feel shallow and unmemorable, most can be summed up in one word which, in Jones’ case, is “pregnant”. It feels like the film was aiming to recreate the camaraderie of a Star Trek bride, or perhaps the crew of Alien’s Nostromo. Unlike those films, though, there isn’t much character, chemistry, or personality to speak of. Try as the film might to endear us to these figures, they don’t do much other than blend together. Kyle Chandler’s character Mitchell could’ve been played by quite literally anyone, and David Oyelowo was shamefully underutilized.

Felicity Jones is serviceable but suffers from the same “painfully uninteresting protagonist” syndrome as Clooney, so we never really found ourselves making any attempts to connect with her. The film’s last-act twist — that Jones is actually Clooney’s daughter — is about as ineffective as it is pointless. Anyone with higher brain function could discern the film’s flashbacks were attempting to build up the significance of Augustine’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his daughter. Even if you’re not actively looking for twists, this one isn’t difficult to spot. Strangely, though, the most notable thing about the flashbacks, which Ethan Peck as young Augustine, was that they dubbed Clooney’s voice over Peck’s dialogue — perhaps in an attempt to clue the audience in that, yes, that is supposed to be young George Clooney.

Though Clooney has struck gold in this genre before, a space epic The Midnight Sky is not. Poorly balanced, choppily structured, and filled to the brim with flat, charmless characters, this is the type of interplanetary voyage we aren’t likely to remember in T-minus three days.

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Have you seen The Midnight Sky? What’s your favorite movie that takes palce in space? Sound off in the comments below.