▶︎ The Midnight Sky is in UK cinemas and on Netflix from 23 December 2020.

George Clooney’s latest directorial outing, released just before this year’s pandemic-pulverised Christmas, isn’t exactly ringing with good cheer. An earnest, melancholy piece of survivor sci-fi about the triumph of the human spirit in a dystopian Arctic wasteland, it’s yet another entry in the burgeoning ‘Doomed Earth’ genre. But unlike The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or Interstellar (2014), it dodges elaborate CGI recreations of Earth’s destruction or event horizons,  focusing on one man’s slow, redemptive journey to save the returning spaceship that is humanity’s last hope.

Clooney himself stars as terminally ill scientist Augustine, the last man alive on Earth in a remote Arctic station after ‘The Event’. Stooped, lavishly bearded and piercingly alone as the Ancient Mariner of the post-apocalypse, his daily schedule of pain-racked transfusions and tracking the encroaching tide of radiation is interrupted by the discovery of mute child stowaway Iris (an engagingly poised Caoilinn Springall).  Like Netflix’s 2018 dystopian hit Bird Box, this adult-child relationship becomes the film’s emotional heart, an unlikely bond thawing Augustine’s gruff despair. 

Clooney with Caoilinn Springall as Iris in The Midnight Sky

But their poignant pairing is undercut by the predictable astronauts-in-peril strand which the film layers on top, as research spaceship Aether spins toward Earth after discovering that Saturn satellite K23 could support human life. Screenwriter Mark L Smith (steeped in icy peril after The Revenant) deals rather less deftly with this plodding storyline, peopling it with a colourlessly heroic crew of astronaut characters who puzzle over Earth’s radio silence and reminisce hokily about their home lives.

There’s a slightly cut-price look about the ship’s steel-trellis production design, but none of the psychological depth or ingenuity of the even lower-budget Moon (2010). And where Interstellar or Ad Astra (2019) pulsed with complex pop-science plotting, The Midnight Sky is doggedly linear, its space action sequences sparse. Only one tragic space walk really registers, creating growing horror from an airlock filling with floating beads of blood.

Felicity Jones as Sully in The Midnight Sky

When Augustine and Iris trek perilously to a weather station’s stronger antennae to try and warn the Aether, their stumbling quest (littered with wolves, blizzards and a heart-in-mouth ice-floe escape) is the only plot strand with real grip. Well-intentioned but clumsy arcing themes attempt clunkily to link both plots, Felicity Jones’s perky pregnant astronaut symbolising the new life that Augustine’s actions might save from the dying Earth. But relentless cutting between the two stories destroys the film’s tensions, and adding in flashbacks to a mysterious lost-love in Augustine’s past makes things feel uncomfortably bitty.

Clooney gives a fine, grizzled performance as Augustine, though his sweet and pleasingly subtle scenes with Springall can’t compensate for the lacklustre inter-planetary action. Alexandre Desplat’s heavy-handed score doesn’t help either, underlining pathos or tension with a thudding orchestral soundtrack. Put together, it makes for a stodgy, significantly less original movie than Clooney’s earlier directorial projects, with none of the enjoyably sharp edges of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2003) or Suburbicon (2017), or the thoughtful moral questions of Good Night, and Good Luck (2006). As it slides into a sentimental resolution that you can see coming from wherever you are in the galaxy, you might wish he’d charted a different course.

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