The year 2020 has played host to a nightmarish global catastrophe, so ending the year with a movie about a nightmarish global catastrophe may not be at the top of many people’s lists. That’s the divide which the new Netflix movie The Midnight Sky must bridge, something made easier by the presence of a movie star like George Clooney.
Clooney, who both stars in and directs the film, plays Augustine, a scientist with terminal cancer who chooses to stay behind at a remote Arctic outpost when an unspecified disaster hits the entire Earth in 2049. Simultaneously, a group of astronauts – including Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole (David Oyelowo), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) – who had been scouting a previously undiscovered moon of Jupiter as a possible new colony are on their way back to Earth with no knowledge of the conditions that await them.
Augustine is determined to warn the astronauts not to come home, even if it means leaving the relatively friendly confines of his outpost for an even more remote station with a stronger antenna. Complicating matters immensely is his discovery of Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a young girl who was left behind in the chaos of the evacuation of the other scientists.
The film, adapted by Mark L. Smith from the book Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, starts off dire and only devolves from there. Usually films like this offer up a bit of hope, but there is almost none to be had throughout the film’s running time. Instead, it turns its focus onto the indomitable human spirit, something that’s evident in both the characters on Earth and in space.
Each group has their own crises with which to deal, and each person deals with the increasingly bad news in his or her own unique way. While there a handful of action set pieces in the film, the plot is driven by the dialogue as characters reckon with their current situations along with the memories of loved ones who keep driving them forward.
This is Clooney’s seventh film as a director, and he has a nice feel for how to make this particular story effective. The scenes in the Arctic (shot in Iceland) are particularly effective, recalling the equally-harrowing movie Arctic. The space-set scenes are hit-and-miss, with some emotional scenes involving memory holograms much more involving than some intense ones on the outside of the ship.
Clooney, sporting a short haircut and bushy white beard, has the plum part and consequently comes off the best. His pairing with Springall keeps things interesting, recalling the softer side he showed in his early days on ER. Jones, Oyelowo, and Chandler, who are joined by Demián Bichir and Tiffany Boone, are all good, although the sterility of their location means their characters’ stories can’t really compete with that of Clooney’s character.
You might have to be in a certain mindset to watch The Midnight Sky, as it doesn’t offer the uplift you might want in this season (or year, for that matter). But it has a solidly-told story with performances to match, which is more than you can say about a lot of other movies in this dreary year.
The Midnight Sky debuts on Netflix on December 23.