In The Midnight Sky, timing is everything. Will George Clooney, playing a very important scientist named Augustine Lofthouse, overcome outrageous obstacles to contact distant astronauts in time? Will said astronauts survive a daring mission to restore damaged communication equipment in time? Will our lead characters experience the emotional awakenings they so desperately need in time?
It's striking, then, to consider the timing of this film. In any other year, its December bow on Netflix would be holiday counter-programming. In 2020, however, it is leaning into the skid.
Assuming you aren't just put off by the premise entirely (a reasonable reaction!), The Midnight Sky works as something of a summing-up for a planet in trouble, and a populace trying to make connections when the very act of going outside might be dangerous.
Clooney isn't just the star, he's the director, too. It is based off the popular novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton with a screenplay adaptation from Mark L. Smith. His previous work on The Revenant is a clue about the vibe here. Things are bleak.
It's 30 years from now, and an "incident" has brought annihilation to Earth. The specifics are vague, but the poison is coming. Lofthouse is at a science station in the Arctic Circle, and when everyone else leaves on choppers with the intent of "going home," he decides to stay. He has some sort of fatal illness anyway (and has to give himself transfusions), but the creeping death still might get to him first.
At first it seems like he chooses solitude out of defeat -- he looks gaunt, has a wild beard, and a permanent look of sadness. Also, he occasionally has flashbacks to his youth, starring the very handsome Ethan Peck, who does such a good Clooney impression I wonder if his voice was dubbed. These scenes dwell on the times he chose work over relationships, but it's that work, in fact, that has kept him behind and given his last days meaning.
There are many space voyages happening at this time of devastation, and all the ships have returned home. One, however, a ship called the Aether, has been out of communication range, and Lofthouse is now driven to get in contact to warn them of the troubles on Earth.
There are complications. For starters, there's a little girl left on the base, who got lost during the bug-out. Then there's the fact that the station's satellite isn't powerful enough to reach the Aether, so they have to travel through the horrible weather (plus the dangerous air -- mask up!!) to find another. Lofthouse must also carry a bulky suitcase with medical gear if he's to maintain his transfusions long enough to make the trek.
Then there's the Aether, where comms specialist Felicity Jones (as Sully, a name you want with you on a dangerous mission!) is on the other end. Also on board is David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, and Tiffany Boone. They are on their way back from an exoplanet called K-23, which, they can confirm, can nurture human life and, as we'll learn, was Lofthouse's discovery. But they run into some problems on the return.
George Clooney's directorial output, as is often the case with actors-turned-directors, hasn't been one to put an emphasis on design or cinematography. (I mean, the suits in Good Night, And Good Luck. are great, I'll give you that.) The space vessel Aether, however, deserves placement on the list of all-time great movie spaceships. Its webbed outer and inner structure, its many chambers, scaly radiation shielding, and spinning gravity columns are simply gorgeous. It also comes equipped with some sleek-looking shuttlecrafts tacked to the hull.
Art direction doesn't drive drama, but the specificity and newness of this physical space immediately creates layers of backstory on a subconscious level. There's also a stab at a Star Trek-like "holodeck" that seems far more achievable than the one we've previously seen on TV.
In short, we've got struggles down in the snow, and more struggles up in the vacuum of space. I can't stress enough, this movie is fundamentally a downer. It's enough to make you want to give up, especially since we know there can not be a traditionally "happy" ending to any of this. But the third act settles on a best-of-a-bad-situation that is very humane and, despite all the far-out science fiction, also realistic.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
The Midnight Sky premieres Friday, Dec. 23 on Netflix.