New Netflix movie The Midnight Sky underutilizes a great cast

THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)George Clooney (“Augustine” - Director - Producer), Caoilinn Springall (“Iris”)Cr. NETFLIX ©2020
THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020)George Clooney (“Augustine” - Director - Producer), Caoilinn Springall (“Iris”)Cr. NETFLIX ©2020 /
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Is The Midnight Sky good?

A man, wearier than he ever expected to be, quarantines himself within the boundaries of one building. He reminisces on disturbing memories from his recent past, initiated by the thumping sounds of helicopters, and progressing into visions of an exponentially spreading red terror. To combat this frightful place in his mind, the man drinks hard liquor. He bleeds. He hears the loud notes of a rock song. And he wakes to discover that the horror is still there.

As much – or as little, I’m not really sure – as George Clooney, director and star of The Midnight Sky, would have you believe, his new Netflix original movie (out on the streaming service today) is no Apocalypse Now. Whereas Coppola’s ode to nihilism fluently commits to depicting the search for the soul of humankind, Clooney’s film constantly pivots back and forth between plotline, genre, and theme. Operating more as a commentary on the alignments of its producing studio, The Midnight Sky finds Netflix handing Clooney (and a supporting cast of worthy actors) control of a project as one is given control of the spaceship in the Mission: Space ride at Disney World.

And like that attraction, The Midnight Sky focuses in on astronauts in the midst of space. They’re attempting to come back to Earth from gathering some sort of data from Jupiter (unclear what), but they’re left on radio silence by the ISS (unclear why) and Earth itself (kind of clear why). That is, until grizzled astrological scientist Augustine (Clooney), who’s isolated in the Arctic, establishes an audio connection to the crew. Augustine is determined to let the astronauts know that Earth is no longer safe for habitation. But he also finds himself burdened with protecting a young girl Iris, stowed away in his haven from the cold and environmental holocaust outside.

Whatever are these few seemingly doomed people to do? In the book on which The Midnight Sky is based – entitled Good Morning, Midnight – author Lily Dalton-Brooks offers the possibility that these resilient survivors would reckon with their pasts, grow more in touch with their emotions, and reach out to each other in the limited, melancholic ways they know how. Seems reasonable enough – raise your hand if you haven’t been doing any of those this despicable year. But The Midnight Sky trades introspective mood and interpersonal connection for beats from the more outwardly engaging adventure and outer space movie playbooks.

Augustine’s arc becomes less about Augustine – in which the book is mightily invested, only provided glimpses here – and more about how an old man and a young girl discover worsening conditions for life on Earth, which reveal themselves as traumatic obstacles and not open-ended idiosyncrasies. Embracing cues from The Walking Dead, Insomnia, and The Polar Express at once, The Midnight Sky gives itself plenty of reasons to evade the emotional layers of its primary storyline.

Then there’s the hopeful spaceship squad – busy at work (unclear what) now, partitioning time to briefly divulge personality traits later. This group seems to be constantly hounded with problems in their mission, which they easily tend to excuse as no fault of their own. With a vague goal and too many open-ended questions (I have yet to be convinced of a good reason to be pregnant and in space, married or otherwise), this plot falls in line with well-examined space thriller qualities found in other movies.

It does not help that Netflix keys into The Midnight Sky’s marketable moments most. Even in a narrative that languishes in empty space and the value of the unsaid, the streaming behemoth loves to jazz locations up simply because of “the future.” Explicitly set in 2049, environments are made all the more attention-grabbing by big, transparent screens and hologram technology directly lended from Black Mirror. Couple that with an immensely popular needle drop slash singalong scene – which seems destined to be taken out of context and land square on the Netflix YouTube page minutes after this review is published – and you’ve got a recipe for algorithmic success.

It must be said that the film enlists the talents of a more than capable cast. The aforementioned Clooney proves his worth in the most believable “old guy big swing” this side of Logan, and he’s joined by the always understated Felicity Jones, the always kind David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, who does close to nothing here (criminal). Clooney’s young companion is portrayed by newcomer Caoilinn Springall, who possesses an unblinking stare supplanted from the archives of Pixar. And Alexandre Desplat’s score is incredibly moving at times – especially in later scenes – providing a lot of the pathos that The Midnight Sky should have given more room.

All of this is to say that The Midnight Sky has a good, fairly underutilized cast. It prides itself on special effects and a story containing beats for fans of nearly every genre. It finds a very popular actor-director transforming for an against-type role. It contains an ending twist that…twists. Sounds like a Netflix movie to me.

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