There’s that old saying, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” Well, The Midnight Sky, George Clooney’s latest directorial and starring effort, is the opposite. It’s a destination, not a journey.
George Clooney’s directorial filmography is uneven. I admire his work more than actually enjoy it. He has great taste, but it rarely translates into something great. I do like that he’s more interested in the human than the spectacular, though, and that especially comes through in The Midnight Sky, which is ostensibly a sci-fi adventure about the end of the world, but really is a requiem for one character and his regrets at the end of the line.
By the time it was over, I felt conflicted, but mostly angry. Angry because it failed at being the movie it was pretending to be. But then, something nagged at me, I was feeling…something. Actually, I was feeling a whole lot of something. I was deeply moved at the implications for the main character and the somber way that they’re presented. The problem, though, is that those implications create only enough good material for a short story, but Clooney stretches the film out to two hours anyway and fills the rest up with half-hearted adventure-y stuff that he clearly isn’t that interested in.
The movie takes place in an undefined future time. Technology is advanced but not mind-bogglingly so. Clooney stars as Augustine Lofthouse (a name if I ever heard one), a scientist who’s devoted his life to finding inhabitable planets. The earth’s dying. No concrete explanation is offered, but radiation is quickly poisoning the atmosphere. Augustine, now an old man (George Clooney isn’t a spring chicken anymore…now I feel old too) dying of an unspecified disease, stays behind at an evacuated arctic research station and searches the heavens for manned space missions to warn them away. He seems particularly obsessed with contacting the crew of the Aether, though.
The movie diverges and follows both the drama of the Aether’s crew in space trying to get home and Augustine back on earth. Augustine, wouldn’t you know it, discovers a forgotten stowaway at the station, a mute, young girl. As their relationship develops, the pair have to leave the failing safety of the station and trek through the arctic circle to reach another station with a more powerful satellite dish in order to contact the Aether.
Here’s what works. The crew, even under unimaginable stress as they’ve lost contact with earth completely, are professional and even-tempered. I was waiting for them to snap, but they keep their calm, even joking around to break the tension, just like I would imagine intelligent and highly trained people like NASA astronauts would do.
And the ending, that destination I mentioned earlier. Dude. It does have an emotional gut punch, especially because the acting and writing is understated. Eschewing a bombastic finale, it’s really just a conversation, though a conversation pregnant with regret and barely repressed emotion. It’s going to stick with me for a while.
The problem with the movie is how we get to that ending. The “adventure” portion of Midnight Sky is bullshit. We instinctively know that it’s there to simply fill time with generic “happenings,” ice breaking, wolf attacks, etc. It’s funny, I was reminded of News of the World while watching this. Even though that’s a post-civil war Western, both star aging, trusted A-list actors, both feature those actors escorting a young girl across dangerous territory, both have a climactic storm (sand in one, snow in the other) where the protagonists are separated from each other, and both are half-hearted (or half-assed) adventures.
Oh, but this movie has a twist. The dreaded twist. Again. And it’s a doozy. Not because it’s unexpected, you could figure it out from my plot synopsis alone, but because it’s so obvious and unfairly played. In my head, I pleaded with the movie not to do it, but sure enough, they did. True, emotionally and character-wise it makes some sense, but the way that it’s presented? It’s stupid As Fuck. It’s less slight of hand and more straight up lying to the audience so you can pull a fast one. The movie would have been weirder and worked much better if they had just been more honest about it.
So, is it worth sitting through two hours of ho-hum, that is admittedly well-acted and features pretty scenery and special effects, to get to the movie’s emotional payoff? Eh, I dunno. I’m not shaking it, and I certainly don’t regret having seen it, but I would be reticent to recommend it. Of course, it is on Netflix, the home of “meh, good enough,” so…