Thursday 24 December 2020 11:30 am

The Midnight Sky review: George Clooney's sci-fi flop

James is one of City A.M.'s film critics and a regular on both TV and radio discussing the latest movie releases

George Clooney’s latest effort The Midnight Sky is a no-lose scenario for the star. Its release on Netflix means it won’t risk the ignominy of box office failure, a fate that befell his most recent film Suburbicon, and 2015 mega-bomb Tomorrowland.

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As well as lower stakes, the streamer has given him a broader canvas, with a huge $100m budget (the largest he’s worked with as a director). Can he deliver blockbuster results?

The Midnight Sky sees Clooney direct and star as Augustine Lofthouse, a famous scientist who has devoted his life to finding an alternative planet for mankind to start again. In the year 2049, the world is ending due to an apocalyptic occurrence known only as ‘The Event’.

While his colleagues at an Arctic observatory evacuate, a terminally ill Augustine decides to stay at the facility. Meanwhile, in space, an expedition to the planet Augustine was looking for is returning to Earth, unsure why no one from home has contacted them yet. With failing health and an unexpected companion (Caoilinn Springall), he tries to contact the ship’s crew so that they can turn back.

To put it bluntly, this sci-fi drama is two films awkwardly smushed together. On the ground, we have a low-key, emotional indie drama about a man coming to terms with what his life’s work has cost him. There’s hints of Duncan Jones’ Moon and John Hillcoat’s The Road in his desperate quest for hope in the face of oblivion, although without the impact of either of those films. 

Above the atmosphere, we’ve got a big budget thriller about astronauts learning that the planet they’re returning to is lost. Focusing on the ship’s pregnant crewmember Sully (Felicity Jones), we have a cast of likeable characters including the ship’s noble commander (David Oyelowo), who all have their own reasons for getting home. You can feel the influence of Ad Astra, Interstellar, Arrival, and a dozen other thoughtful sci-fi movies that fare better than this. 

On their own, the two stories are adequate. Side by side, it’s a tonal nightmare. Augustine’s mission feels like a sub-plot that was beefed up due to the person playing the role, adding bleak obstacles that don’t feel terribly urgent given that, you know, the world’s ending anyway. Clooney’s mute child sidekick has her moments, but is a cynical device to ensure Clooney isn’t just talking to himself in the snow. 

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Jones and Oyelowo don’t fare much better, with fragments of plot to keep them busy as the two parties drift towards the inevitable underwhelming exchange. Behind the camera, Clooney seems unsure what to do with such large-scale storytelling, and so borrows from the past in rather obvious ways. The film’s big set piece, where the crew are hit by a meteor strike, is reminiscent of the opening of 2013’s Gravity, with much of the tension stripped away. 

To call it an abject failure would be unfair. Clooney puts a lot of heart into Augustine, with the regret spilling out of those famous brown eyes as he remembers a lost love and the ambition that drove her away. All the astronauts are likeable, with Kyle Chandler making the most of a slight role as a father eager to return to Earth, no matter what awaits him.

The Midnight Sky takes a long time to do very little, squandering its Netflix millions on something that doesn’t know if it’s a blockbuster or an arthouse film, and ends up with the worst qualities of both. Having started so promisingly with 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney the director may need to go back to the drawing board. 

The Midnight Sky is available on Netflix from 23rd November.