George Clooney is reliable, as in – I know that virtually any role I catch the charismatic leading man in, he’s going to kick ass with it. Given that he’s been acting steadily since the early 1980’s, it’s no big surprise that he’s honed his craft as finely as he has. And, like many other successful actors, he’s taken what he’s learned over the course of his career and turned to applying it to directing occasional feature films over the last couple decades, a craft he’s also shown to have a deft hand at, going back to his impressive debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). While other films he’s helmed may not linger long in the memory after viewing, there’s no denying that he maintains the prowess to craft together a cohesive and complete cinematic narrative, often resulting in decent cash at the Box Office.
Which brings me to fucking COVID-19.
When this damn plague (which we’re still fighting at the time of this writing) hit, it forced many inconvenient changes to society here in North America (and yes, the whole world too) and one of those changes was the abrupt closure of nearly all theatres in the land, which for a movie nerd such as myself, totally sucks.
But, like the automobile and weapons industries, Hollywood simply can’t stop producing, so new avenues for getting films out to the movie-watching public needed to be explored, and fast. Which brings us to streaming content.
Only about 5 years ago, streaming giant Netflix was a tiny little upstart company, the first of what would become many, focused on streaming online whatever content their meagre resources would allow. Fast forward to now and they are one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, with self-produced content easily rivaling the output of the major studios in Tinseltown. There’ve be several Netflix Originals that surprised me with their quality and overall entertainment value and as a result, I now pay attention when they have another big one in the pipeline.
I only just recently caught wind of this film and being a life-long fan of the Science Fiction / Horror genres, I looked a little closer. While the premise was indeed intriguing, seeing George Clooney’s name in the Directed By credit added to the allure, as I don’t recall any of his other directorial efforts being as ‘genre’ as this is.
The Midnight Sky, adapted from a 2016 novel called Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, takes place in 2049, as the Earth is in the last throes of death due to an unnamed global catastrophe that is spreading rapidly to the last inhabited sections of our doomed planet. In the Arctic Circle, a terminally ill scientist named ‘Augustine’ (George Clooney) opts to remain at one of the last operating tracking stations after the final exodus of desperate refugees has fled during a mass evacuation, ready to accept his own inevitable demise as the unstoppable phenomenon approaches. As he ekes out a blandly routine existence in the deserted base, he discovers that he is not alone, as a silent little girl emerges from hiding, throwing a wrench into the gears of his plan. Coupled with that inconvenience, he also realizes that the last ship, the Aether, that had been sent into space to survey a new planet that could help continue mankind’s survival, is due to return soon. Knowing that the crew will be greeted by the mass grave that Earth has become and that it will inevitably kill them, ‘Augustine’ and the little girl set out on foot to reach another station that may have the ability to contact the crew of the Aether, to warn them off. As the two mismatched companions embark on their dangerous journey, the ship’s crew, as seen through the eyes of Communications Officer ‘Sully’ (Felicity Jones), encounter their own deadly obstacles when a navigation mishap sends them dangerously off course. These two stories hurl toward each other as the stakes continue to rise for all involved.
So, this last weekend, my wife and I parked our lazy, done-with-2020 asses on the couch and fired up Clooney’s latest, with my pad and pencil at ready.
Here be them scribbles…
-Efficient, mood-setting intro. Good plot set-up – illness. The Midnight Sky gets right to it, with an effective, right-to-the-point opening that clearly sets up the scenario and the motivations of our main character ‘Augustine’, while also conveying a sense of doomed inevitability.
-Production design is a little too Star Treky. It works, just not preferred. This was scribbled in reaction to the first looks at the Aether’s interior aesthetic, which initially struck me as being a little too clean and smoothly designed.
-I like the zero-G transitions. When we are first introduced to the Aether, we follow Felicity Jones’ ‘Sully’ as she makes her way through the sprawling spacecraft using corridors that transition from gravity to zero-G as she moves. The effect was almost flawless and I very much appreciated the small, but realistic detail.
-Ship exterior VERY cool. Realistic. After my initial reaction to the appearance of the ship’s interior, I was very pleasantly surprised when I got my first detailed look at its exterior, the real-world design striking me as being a believable offshoot to space technology that we’re seeing today, namely the ISS.
-Some really nice sci-fi visuals. This continues to pop up as the story unfolds, for both the Earth-bound and space-faring scenes.
-Um…hi? Damn kid! After discovering evidence hinting that he might not be alone, ‘Augustine’ stumbles upon a little girl who appears to have been left behind when the rest of the evacuees left. This was a development that his quietly self-destructive plan hadn’t counted on and after several attempts to contact someone to come an collect her, he reluctantly resigns himself to the fact that they are now stuck together.
-Good use of quiet. I always appreciate it when a film is brave enough to dispense with the emotional guidance of a music score and just let the sounds of the scene speak for themselves. This applies even more so to flicks in the science fiction / horror genres, as it can lend a viscerally unsettling tone which, at times, The Midnight Sky maintains.
-Shades of Ripley and Newt. Seeing ‘Augustine’ and ‘Lily’ ( as we come to learn) warm up to each other reminded me of the pseudo mother / daughter relationship that blossoms between ‘Ellen Ripley’ (Sigourney Weaver) and last survivor of the Hadley’s Hope colony in My Favorite Movie Ever – Aliens (1986).
-Busted! Cute scene. Pea fight. Further to the last scribble above, this was the scene that truly established a rapport between the old dying man and the silent little girl, as a sudden fight involving flicked peas at a dinner table ensues, solidifying the bond between them. It was a fun scene in how it played out.
-Cool rifle. Old meets new. When ‘Augustine’ and ‘Iris’ set out for the other station, one of the pieces of gear he hauls along is a cool-looking lever-action rifle with an intricately skeletonized butt and what looked like an all-polymer frame. As scribbled, it was a stylish example of ‘old meets new’ that made sense in the world depicted.
-Crazy breaking ice scene! Intense. There was a good fake-out scene where hints at approaching peril, as the two survivors trekked across the ice, were unexpectedly subverted by danger of a completely unrelated sort, leading to a harrowing sequence that they only just barely escape from. Clooney helmed an effective scene with this one.
-Clooney’s life is miserable. One aspect we are constantly made aware of is just how shitty ‘Augustine’s life is, whether it be his worsening sickness, his loneliness, his regrets or just the overall situation as a whole. When there is the rare moment of levity or happiness, it resonates as a result of the dour emotional set-up of the character.
-Awesome ice storm scene! Very ‘Gravity’. As we follow along with the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Aether, we witness them trek headlong into a storm of deadly ice chunks that wreak havoc on the ship and force the crew to act in order to secure their survival. Very clearly, Clooney was paying attention when he worked with Alfonso Cuaren on his technically amazing space disaster flick ‘Gravity’ (2013), as the outer space scenes share a similar grand and realistic feel.
-EVA scene feels real. There’s an extended sequence in which three crew members of the Aether must venture outside the ship and make their way along its hull, and it feels like it could be an outtake from ‘Gravity’. Not only is that NOT a bad thing, but its also a testament to the quality of the special effects. The CG for these sequences is nearly flawless and really made me yearn for the day’s of care-free theatre-going, as many scenes in The Midnight Sun would look amazing in a large format presentation. Oh, and EVA stands for Extravehicular Activity…if you wanted to know.
-Sing A Long reminds of The Abyss. I love James Cameron’s 1989 underwater epic and I especially love the Director’s Cut, which features a lively, character-building but ultimately unnecessary scene (hence its being chopped out of the Theatrical Version) in which the crew of the Deepcore drilling platform break out into a country music sing-a-long as they travel to the site of the doomed USS Montana. There’s a sequence similar to that in which the crew of the Aether all come together in song too. These two scenes are great because A) they’re charming and B) they further humanize the characters that we’re following while also helping establish their groups overall dynamic.
-Agh! Gross, zero-G blood! Too much! This flick is not about mucho bloodletting…but damn! During the EVA, a character is grievously wounded, but doesn’t realize it until that first drop of blood drifts up through their suit to float before their astonished eyes. What follows next is a harrowing and effectively stomach-churning scene where the extent of the damage is revealed through a slow-motion explosion of blood that fills an airlock with a storm of floating red globules as the crew race to save the life of a comrade. Made me cringe!
-Death actually means something. So many movies treat death almost nonchalantly but Clooney does a good job showing how the demise of a key member of the crew resonates with the survivors as individuals. It worked for me.
-Nice twist. Appropriately down ending. Works for me! There’s a ‘Fight Club’ish type twist that did offer up a touch of confusion (for dumbass me, at least) but it all led to a finale’ that was appropriately dour, given the initial set-up and overall narrative. Really, the established mechanics of the story wouldn’t have believably allowed for a ‘they ride off into the golden sunset’-style ending, so I was happy that Clooney embraced the dark ending.
-Nice job, George. Kinda says it right there.
All in all, I was quite impressed with The Midnight Sky. George Clooney again proves that he’s got the chops both in from of and behind the camera. I was never bored watching this flick and I found it to be worthy of a Big Screen showing, which it will never get, unfortunately. But as a Netflix Original, I think the studio / streaming service has every right to be proud of having this gritty science fiction movie in their line up. It has a solid cast, great production design, several well-orchestrated sequences of peril and mayhem while also having a heart at its core, a rediscovery of humanity at the end of days.
If you’re a fan of George Clooney, either as an actor or director, or just have an appreciation for ‘realistic’ science fiction, you should be well served with The Midnight Sky. It’s not perfect…but it’s got a lot going for it. Check it out!