Clearly, George Clooney can’t get enough of space. After previously getting stranded with Sandra Bullock in space in Gravity, he remains on Earth this time around in The Midnight Sky where he plays Augustine, a scientist who must tread his way across Antarctica to communicate with a group of astronauts in order to prevent them from entering what’s become a post-apocalyptic Earth.
It’s a storyline that on paper, sounds like an intriguing spectacle since we venture into the grand depths of space while dealing with the storyline involving Augustine who lives in isolation as he goes on a race against time to send this pivotal message. However, what sounds like it has such promise proves to be a visually stunning yet utterly disjointed narrative.
If anything, the Earth storyline is a doable exercise in minimalism. Watching Augustine reside alone on Antarctica with Iris (Caolinn Springall), a mute child survivor who mysteriously appears in the sanctuary he lives in is quite absorbing and it’s largely due to an emotive turn from George Clooney. Clooney’s consistently expressive eyes capture Augustine’s crushing desolation and eventual vitality once taking care of Iris gives him some purpose. Also, despite being wordless the entire film, young actress Caolin Springall manages to hold her own against her A-list co-star.
As for the space storyline, we follow Sully Rembshire (Felicity Jones) along with her crew that consists of her husband Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo), Sanchez (Demian Bichir), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Mitchell Rembshire (Kyle Chandler) who try returning home on the spaceship Aether after exploring K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons. Yet, the awe-inspiring visuals and skilled production design by Jim Bissell used to bring Aether to life aren’t enough to mask the poor character development.
Between all the actors playing the astronauts, only Felicity Jones is given the most breathing room as the buoyant leader Sully. David Oyelowo is left with little to do but wander and spout expositional dialogue while Kyle Chandler and Demian Bichir make the most of the similarly underwritten material they’re given. That being said, given how we get glimpses of the backstories of Chandler and Bichir’s respective characters, they still have more development than Tiffany Boone who offers amiability as Maya even if her character has little agency.
If we’re going to cut away from the tense one-man-show drama to the astronauts as they wander through space, we need to know more about these astronauts so that when they’re faced with inevitable danger, we feel the same fear as they do. It is only when the harmonious score composed by Oscar-winning maestro Alexandre Desplat is heard where the space storyline possesses any loftiness. More so than the occasional heightened action sequences and a “Sweet Caroline” needle drop meant to provide a light-hearted touch.
Despite the needle drop of a classic tune and a story involving a stranded protagonist played by an Ocean’s actor who must connect with his astronaut crew, The Midnight Sky isn’t a dreary The Martian clone nor is it even a mingling of the various space epics we’ve gotten recently. The problem is it isn’t much of anything. The minimalism that thrives in Clooney’s survivalist story becomes undercut by the sadly mundane space venture. To put it bluntly, The Midnight Sky should’ve solely been brought down to Earth.