' ' Cinema Romantico: The Midnight Sky

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Midnight Sky

“The Midnight Sky” opens with the camera looking through the window of an Antarctic research facility and out on the desolate, frozen tundra. Several wide shots of the installation’s empty interior ensue, a concise summary of nothingness. Finally, into a shot of the conspicuously unoccupied cafeteria trudges Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), a name betraying that this movie, which Clooney directed, was based on a book because no one gives a movie character the name Augustine Lofthouse. He sits down and removes the plastic wrap from his lunch tray. A title card says: “Three Weeks After The Event.” What Event? Well, if this opening suggests an elliptical narrative, one doling out information visually and moving at the pace of Augustine entering the cafeteria, once he sits down, “The Midnight Sky” flashes back to an earlier scene in which people are fleeing the facility. These flashbacks beget more flashbacks to when Augustine was a young man, weirdly edited with Clooney’s voice in place of the younger actor (Ethan Peck) playing him, which are not played so much as scenes in and of themselves as convenient bits of explicit backstory. Indeed, if Augustine is the last man on Earth, opting to stay behind since he is dying while the fallout from a nuclear disaster sends the few remaining up into space, “The Midnight Sky” is no meditation on loneliness, so busy in its plot that even though it means to be melancholy, it never takes any time to mourn.

Augustine, it goes out without saying, turns out not to be the last on man on Earth. In fairness, when he finds a second cereal bowl in the cafeteria, Clooney’s hesitant body language quietly suggests he has merely lost his marbles, though he hasn’t as soon after we meet a young girl (Caoilinn Springall) inadvertently left behind in the hurry to leave. I’ll give you two guesses as to who she turns out to be since your first guess, which was my first guess, will prove incorrect, though the slightly less obvious, yet still unsurprising, second guess is right even as I will refrain from spoiling it. Clooney plays these scenes well enough, a terse man trying to find his way into adolescent caretaker, but his performance and their chemistry do not elevate it above mere narrative device. It’s as if the scene in “Gravity” where Clooney himself appears to explain everything to Sandra Bullock was stretched out over the whole run time. True, the young girl is there to demonstrate that a man too obsessed with work has the caring gene in him after all, but that is the whole point of the entire main plot in which Augustine navigates the dangerous, icy landscape with the young girl in tow to find a powerful radio beacon to send a signal to a ship in space carrying the last humans.

The spaceship and its small crew is traveling back from exploring a habitable Jupiter moon. When we first meet them, however, they have lost contact with Earth and don’t know why. What transpires is not “Alien” nor “2001” nor even Claire Denis’s “High Life.” No, it’s quieter, more solemn, a little uncomfortable, a little icy. The crew is much more diverse than a family of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, absolutely, but the air nevertheless suggests a chilly New England home. The mission commander, Adewole (David Oyelowo), might have his partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), along with him, and she might be expecting their child, but that only adds to the low-key tension. These are people who want to be home but are stuck together in a makeshift dwelling instead, growing quiet and distant, content to spend time amid holograms of their families back on Earth rather than face the reality in front of them, a weird vibe for a big budget sci-fi movie that I kinda dug. Even scenes that don’t work, sometimes sorta do, like the Neil Diamond singalong during a spacewalk scene that is supposed to come across as jovial camaraderie but rings weirdly hollow, like no one’s heart is in it. 

Alas, that spacewalk scene is also indicative of where “The Midnight Sky” really goes wrong. Though there are fascinating psychological threads, Clooney refrains from pulling those too far, opting instead to throw dramatic obstacle after dramatic obstacle in his characters’ paths. That spacewalk is to repair the ship in the wake of an asteroid strike while, on his own quest, Augustine barely escapes a shelter threatening to plunge through the ice. Rather than gaining momentum, “The Midnight Sky” comes to feel like it’s stalling for time, and the communication of the conclusion bear no weight. Indeed, what should be profoundly moving, the final words between the Last Man on Earth and the Last Humans in Space, is instead drowned out by all the artificial white noise. 

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