“The Midnight Sky” Movie Review

     George Clooney returns to both the director’s chair and the screen in “The Midnight Sky”, a brooding post-apocalyptic story chronicling what appears to be the aftermath of an Earth altering disaster that has forced the entire human race to flee.  Although we are never really filled in on the details.  Early on, we are told a manned mission to a moon orbiting Jupiter left some years ago to determine if scientists are indeed correct that they have found a place within our solar system habitable for human life.  It’s unclear why in the year 2049 we would’ve been planning on moving, but what is clear, based on the circumstances, is whatever we thought was going to happen most certainly has.

     Augustine (George Clooney) is the lone remaining crew member of a high tech observatory somewhere in the Arctic.  An initial scene sees the rest of the people who worked and presumably lived there, leaving in helicopters and attempting to compel him to abandon the station as well.  He refuses and we soon learn why.  Two reasons really.  Augustine is sick and we are meant to believe he doesn’t have a lot of time.  There is also the issue of the aforementioned mission to Jupiter, which is now on its way back to Earth, but is unaware of what has happened.

     As a director, Clooney employs a series of atmospheric shots and exceptional design elements in order to give the audience a clear understanding of his immediate surroundings, but also the ongoing feeling of loneliness and isolation.  He’s clearly driven in his purpose.  A brilliant man and scientist who is at least partially responsible for the discoveries beyond our planet.  But time is not a luxury he enjoys, as both his health and approaching radiation from the catastrophe means he must make contact with the crew on the approaching ship, the Ether, and implore them to avoid Earth.

     In doing so, Augustine finds a stow away in the form of a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall), who doesn’t speak and apparently was left behind.  We spend time with them as Augustine attempts to find out more about her, as he now has a new responsibility in addition to his own arduous maintenance and the central task at hand.  Mark L. Smith, one of the screenwriters for the Oscar winning film “The Revanant”, adapts Lily Brooks-Dalton’s source novel and not surprisingly crafts a survival story where the harsh weather and dangerous surroundings add tension to an already harrowing scenario for Augustine and Iris.  Meanwhile, the Ether barrels forward while dealing with issues of their own.

     Perhaps taking a cue from his work with director Alfonso Cuaron in 2013’s “Gravity”, Clooney depicts the dangers of space travel with a similar intensity.  Never mind what the crew may encounter once they arrive to their home planet, the pitfalls of cruising through space are aplenty and the fact they have now lost contact with Earth means an even more determined focus in order to find out why.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo), and accompanied by a crew of various scientists and engineers including Sully (Felicity Jones), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Damian Bichir), and Maya (Tiffany Boone), they seem to operate efficiently when considering the size of the ship.  And yet a small crew can quickly become a burden if something were to go wrong, which of course is a given.

     Initially, Augustine is successful in contacting the Ether crew, but the signal is somewhat akin to an extremely bad cell connection, leaving much of the communication unintelligible.  A matter made worse when a shower of space junk engulfs the ship and destroys their radar and communications array.  Recontacting Augustine becomes the obvious priority, meaning half of the crew must go outside and attempt to fix and replace the damaged equipment.  And this is where Clooney really excels in creating a truly white knuckle sequence that reintroduces the dangerous complexities of working in such an unpredictable environment.  It seems nothing ever comes easy.

     I think one of the most frustrating aspects audiences will point out about “The Midnight Sky” is how disjointed the narrative ends up becoming.  It’s as if we have two completely different stories that are being told with only a faint radio transmission connecting them.  Sure, there are plenty of other revelations late in the third act, but for the majority of the film, we have a long stretch with Augustine and Iris, only to leave them for an extended sequence with the crew of the Ether where it becomes easy to forget what it was Augustine had to do with all of this in the first place.  One could easily see two separate films here.  The more compelling of course being the desperation of the Ether crew to get home to their families, all the while not knowing they may no longer exist due to an unknown event on Earth.  Even a deep dive character study into a scientist’s mission to somehow determine if it is possible to save the Earth from certain doom while isolated in the Arctic would’ve made for an interesting ninety or so minutes if a payoff arrived at the end.

     Instead, neither story gives us what we think we want.  Answers.  Or maybe some semblance of closure.  But the ambiguity actually plays in the film’s favor, particularly when several of the plot threads come together late in the story.  Often times, we don’t know what we’re dealing with and it would be arrogant of anyone to believe one person could figure it out as if life always needs to be a series of happy endings.  We are never told what actually happened, but when the sight of Earth is finally seen by the crew of the Ether, it is abundantly clear turning around is the best option.  Which brings forth an obvious thought.  Maybe if the Jupiter moon ends up working out, the humans who go there won’t find a way to ruin that planet too.  GRADE: B-