The timeline of George Clooney’s career seems entirely of its time: An old-school movie star who made his way through variety of genres, often centering on grown-up movies, even deciding to direct himself some times. His career, the way it was, seems like science fiction: A movie star rising in his mid-30s? An actor only playing a superhero once, and then apologizing for it? It’s then also almost meta to see him cast himself as the last man on Earth in his latest starring and directorial effort, The Midnight Sky. To get into the semantics, Augustine (Clooney) isn’t really the last man on the planet, but he sure is isolated. Taking place in a global apocalypse in 2049, its been three weeks since “the event,” which is faintly said to have involved massive air contamination. After a lonely opening scene at an Artic observatory, a flashback shows Augustine opting to stay behind as helicopters full of people set off for safety that is far from guaranteed (and, as the movie later suggests, temporary at best). He has some kind of terminal diagnosis seemingly unrelated to the contamination, and decides to bide his time at the base, alone.
Clooney the director, though, doesn’t hold on to the Artic desolation that long, soon intercutting the story of spaceship returning from a mission to assess the livability of a recently discovered moon orbiting Jupiter. The crew, including Tom (David Oyelowo), Sully (Felicity Jones), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), have no idea that they’ve left what may be the only immediately habitable environment in the solar system. Back on Earth, Augustine encounters a child (Caoilinn Springall) hiding in the base. Curious and persistent, she’s a believable kid character in every way but the precocious silence that movies often lend to children when they want to avoid the messy, predictable business of actual preteen emoting. Her stoicism comes in handy when Augustine realizes the ship is heading for Earth and decides to head out through the treacherous Artic landscapes, kid in tow, to another base with a better chance of reaching them.
So The Midnight Sky is two survival movies that have the potential to fit together. The division between the astronauts and the ground team is a familiar structure, here given one clever reversal: The crew aboard the ship is relatively large, while mission control is one guy with a radio and his mute sidekick. Yet, these parallel adventures don’t fall into any real rhythm, at all: the balance keeps shifting uncomfortably and awkwardly. After a long stretch of cutting back and forth, the story of Augustine and his surrogate parenting gets a clunky extended pause while the space crew portion of the movie straps in for a big set piece. But it doesn’t help that the astronaut-drama stuff is far from strong. Throughout it Clooney never really finds the stakes for this section of the movie. Even as they have moments of being well staged, they feel sterile and underdeveloped to the point of being devoid of human emotion (that is until the finale tries to manipulatively call for it). It has little oxygen and relatively no pulse.
Then there’s the movie’s flashbacks and occasional dreams sequences that slow much of its momentum early on. (Though, in classic dopey-flashback fashion, they’re revealed to serve a single-minded purpose later on). Ethan Peck is called on to deliver exposition playing a younger Augustine — seemingly (and distractingly) dubbed by a tweaked version of Clooney’s voice. It’s these moments, that Clooney clutters up his own fine work as an actor. He’s adorned here with a bushy beard that brings out a certain lonely vulnerability in his eyes, and it’s a solid overall performance filled with desperation. Behind the camera, his strongest moments are seemingly the more impressionistic ones: Artic wolves barely visible through blurs in a snowstorm and a tense scene where floating droplets of blood find menacing qualities. (Alexandre Desplat’s overworked and aggressive score doesn’t really help those quiet moments, though.)
Gradually, The Midnight Sky becomes intriguing — not over the fate of the Earth or the astronauts but more out of curiosity of whether its two storylines will ever coalesce into something more meaningful than everything that’s come before it. And while they do finally come together, its means end up being kind of mawkish and too irksomely tidy to find any honesty, even with its naked emotionality. Throughout, there are hints of a movie that could have been: Clooney and Springall have an effective chemistry, even though she’s mostly a device to give his character something to fight for; and some of the space set pieces click, as well. Most of the time though, The Midnight Sky drifts like space debris between its three setting, instead of feeling like it’s building momentum. It comes off like Clooney the director was so concerned about adequately conveying some of the details of each section of his story that he lost track of the core of each of them. Leaving the movie emptily heartless and Clooney in weightless space, lost and left only with his star(dom). Bogged down by clunky tangents and an uneven structure, The Midnight Sky strives for the stars and more often finds hollow superficiality.
The Midnight Sky will be available to stream on Netflix on December 23