Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Some actors turn out to be naturally talented directors. The classic example is of course the filmmaker behind Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles. More recent examples are Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck, both of whom have won Oscars for their work. Additionally, A-list leading man and all around likeable guy George Clooney, has also delivered his fair share of directorial efforts. He first showed the world his skills with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), and later proved it wasn’t a fluke with the excellent Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Sure, not every entry in his directing filmography has been a home run, but his narrative sensitivity and subtle dramatic concepts ensure that even his lesser films are worth a look. This brings us to The Midnight Sky (2020), Clooney’s new film based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel.
Clooney stars as Dr. Augustine Lofthouse, an ambitious scientist intent on finding new planets for humans to inhabit. He got so caught up in his work that he destroyed his relationship with his romantic partner Jean (Sophie Rundle). Fast forward to 2049, where a mysterious apocalyptic event has wiped out most of the Earth’s population. While the rest of the surviving humans have abandoned the planet, Augustine stays behind in a lonely Arctic facility, knowing he doesn’t have long to live due to a serious medical condition. Augustine discovers that a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) didn’t evacuate with the others and is stuck in the facility with him. Meanwhile, a team of astronauts led by Dr. “Sully” Sullivan (Felicity Jones) and Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) are on their way back to Earth, completely unaware of the world’s current desolate state.
We’ve gotten a lot of introspective space films over the past few years, and The Midnight Sky fits in neatly with that trend. Just like Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and Ad Astra (2019), The Midnight Sky aims to examine aspects of the human condition from an emotional and theoretically scientific perspective. The subtle irony of this genre is that we need to look to the stars in order to discover things about ourselves. As to be expected, the characters experience moments of isolation, which in turn forces them to connect with each other. These genre tropes are pretty well established at this point, so The Midnight Sky has a pretty functional template to work with. The film follows the mould without much issue, but this does mean that it feels a little unremarkable when compared to its predecessors.
Sticking to genre tropes isn’t an issue as long as they’re conveyed in a compelling manner, but sadly The Midnight Sky can be a little dry for long stretches. The slow pace is very artistically deliberate and is a key component of the introspection, but it doesn’t create much thematic interest. There’s a lack of engagement because many of the slower moments don’t hold meaning to the overall story. A slow pace can be utterly hypnotic when done well, but sadly there’s not much to unpack whenever The Midnight Sky pumps the breaks. To be fair, there’s an emotionally captivating and psychologically engaging narrative in here, but it’s buried underneath a mountain of small moments which aren’t that important. Regardless, these small moments aren’t a total loss, as a handful of them provide some of the film’s most adorably human interactions.
While the bulk of the film is made up of these small interactions, Clooney does successfully sneak in a few standout set pieces. If the recent slew of space dramas have shown us anything, it’s that outer-space is rather terrifying. When at its best, space is tense, unpredictable and dangerous. The highpoint of the entire film is undoubtedly an extended sequence involving the characters on the space station, utilising a slow but effective build up of nail-biting stress. Consequently, the inventive scenario and jaw-dropping violence leads to a payoff that’s both unnerving and heart-wrenching. It’s an impressive stretch and is the greatest display of Clooney’s not inconsiderable talents as a director. Sadly, the mix of tension, drama, subtlety, and narrative heft during this middle act further highlights that the rest of the film lacks the same energy.
With that in mind, the two main plot lines aren’t fairly weighted against each other. Obviously, the earthbound journey involving Augustine and Iris is the main story thread and thus takes up most of the runtime, but it’s not as narratively engaging as the astronaut’s story thread. While the relationship between Augustine and Iris is undeniably sweet, the motley crew on the spaceship have more nuanced and complex character arcs. Whenever they’re the centre of attention, the narrative interest picks up, so it’s a shame that majority of the film is dedicated to the less complicated and dryer arc. The two storylines do eventually come together in a genuinely surprising and emotionally powerful way, but we sadly don’t get a chance to see that connection flourish. To be fair, focusing on this narrative turn would’ve resulted in an entirely different film, so they were between a rock and a hard place.
If nothing else, Clooney’s skills as an actor’s director remains untarnished. As an incredibly accomplished actor himself, it’s no wonder Clooney is able to glean captivating and believably human performances from the entire cast. Sure, the story can be a little too subtle to effectively communicate character traits, but David Oyelowo, Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir and Caoilinn Springall are all skilled enough to create relatable people from basic archetypes. Most interestingly, Clooney is still a very humble performer, even though he is both the lead and the storyteller. Most of the time, actor/directors craft their films around their camera-mugging presence, but Clooney resists such temptations. Clooney’s work as Augustine is wonderfully understated, making his one-man-show extremely tolerable when compared to his peers.
As far as actor/directors go, George Clooney has earned his place as a force to be reckoned with. With a resume that includes Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck and Ides of March (2011), Clooney’s directorial efforts will always deserve a look. The Midnight Sky won’t be remembered as one of his better films (nor is it the best work of anyone involved), but it’s still the kind of film that can only be made by incredibly talented people genuinely trying to create compelling art. For that reason, it deserves respect despite its many imperfections.
Best way to watch it: With a lot of caffeine.