George Clooney’s ‘The Midnight Sky’ Goes on a Cold Journey of Loneliness and Ecological Disaster

Nothing says somber quite like the end of the world. George Clooney’s first directorial effort for Netflix is as somber and cold as its setting. “The Midnight Sky” opens in a very near future where humanity has finally done it and Earth is consumed by ecological cataclysm. Two cold environments compliment themselves, the Arctic and deep space. These are not the usual destinations for Clooney’s movies, which tend to focus on history and politics. As a first try at familiar sci-fi, the ideas are certainly there. The approach, however, doesn’t know where to land.

The year is 2049 and disaster has struck. What’s left of humanity has gone into underground shelters while firestorms obliterate everything else. In the Arctic a scientist named Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) is left behind to man a transmission site. It soon becomes clear why Augustine made a viable candidate, he is dying. Spending his time in the low-lit corridors of the station, Augustine searches for any of the remaining space missions that were sent to find a new home for humankind. He finds one named Aether and tries to alert them that Earth is no longer inhabitable. To his surprise a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), appears to have been left behind at the station. She does not utter a word but gives Augustine a chance to practice long-neglected parental skills of a sort. Far away in space, the Aether crew, composed of Sully Rembshire (Felicity Jones), commander Tom (David Oyelowo), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), look forward to returning home, but are unaware that their memories are now of a planet long gone. 

With “The Midnight Sky” Clooney is attempting two different angles to address what seems like one pressing issue. Based on a novel, “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the story has the usual themes of loneliness juxtaposed with planetary decay. Augustine is the last man standing after (we assume) climate change finally starts charging its dues. The crew of the Aether personifies the idea that humankind will have no choice but to seek new homes in the cosmos, if we are to survive. These are themes classic to science fiction, but Clooney’s first effort as a director with the genre sticks to one contemplative mood that rarely shifts into true dramatic tension. Augustine’s scenes are directed with the tone of a whisper. They amount to a collection of moments. We see him conduct his own blood treatments, sit in silence while eating peas and wondering what Iris is all about, or gazing out into the frosty landscape. Flashbacks hint to his younger days when Augustine was an ambitious scientist seeking new worlds and didn’t have time for his wife, who had to learn the same old movie lesson about visionary men and their affections. 

Up in the Aether there’s slightly more tension. Clooney was reportedly influenced by Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and it somewhat shows in at least one sequence, when a spacewalk turns into a life or death situation involving a storm of debris. Oddly enough, when one of the crew members faces disaster and we get a well-staged scene involving floating goblets of blood, the movie reaches its most human moment. Maybe it is because there’s finally real emotion coming across. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe apes Emmanuel Lubezki’s clean, crisp visuals evoking the environment of space. The music by Alexandre Desplat avoids electronic clichés so in vogue now, giving everything an orchestral scope that has more emotional pull than Mark L. Smith’s script. The visual effects team and production designer Jim Bissell deliver magnificent work in terms of the movie’s look. Aether’s interiors, including hologram projections allowing the astronauts to literally inhabit their memories, feel vivid and like a future that is just around the corner. 

While Clooney should be commended for trying to expand his palette and dabble in different genres, for now he seems like the kind of director who works best in his comfort zones. His best films remain “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March,” which are tight dramas about politics and media, two subjects closer to his passions. His adaptation of “Catch-22” for Hulu was also more engaging. When he reaches beyond, as in 2017’s half-formed satire “Suburbicon,” Clooney wants to play notes he is still learning. “The Midnight Sky” feels like Clooney chasing after “Gravity” and a contemplative sci-fi film he himself starred in, Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake of the Soviet classic “Solaris,” about an astronaut haunted by the specter of his wife. Here the film lacks the visceral tone of the former and overdoes the somberness of the latter. It’s more of a collection of scenes that never build to a climax, or to a resolution worthy of the themes it wants to build on. On the Aether we learn that Sully is pregnant by Tom and that Sanchez and Mitchell really, really want to get back to their families on Earth. None of this leads to much other than very heartfelt hugs and low-key “should we go back?” discussions. 

At some point Augustine decides to trek into the frozen landscape to find a better satellite for reaching the Aether. Along the way we get one survivalist sequence involving a lake and sinking snowmobile, and are left wondering how Augustine survives an ordeal that would freeze to death anyone other than George Clooney. And during all of this the relationship with Iris never truly develops into any kind of emotional bond. Later we discover why, but we can only roll our eyes at what turns out to be the movie’s worst recycle of an old cliché. Clooney’s stronger gifts as a director do shine through in his best moment in the film, when he has a heart-pouring transmission with Sully near the end. In earlier scenes he also evokes defeated tension when trying to make it clear to the astronauts that there’s no sense in attempting to land. Another Cuaron project Clooney seems to evoke is “Aningaaq,” a companion short to “Gravity” by Jonás Cuarón about an Inuit fisherman conversing with astronauts from a snow-covered landscape.

“The Midnight Sky” leaves us with well-framed images of cold desolation and what life in space could very well be like in a few decades. Yet it raises the intriguing question of how should a director approach themes of facing the apocalypse as a sigh and without bombast. It’s a film set in a frozen environment that makes for chilled viewing. Yes, space is vast and cold. But does that mean the filmmaker should keep the narrative itself in that style? For now it can’t be denied Clooney is keen on being versatile. He refuses to stay in just one zone, and even if he gets lost in space, at least he is willing to give the journey a try.

The Midnight Sky” begins streaming Dec. 23 on Netflix.