It’s hard to believe that George Clooney had gone from in front of the camera, to behind it 18 years ago with his directorial debut “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind”. While the years have rolled on by, his skill as a filmmaker has only improved. He started his career as a director, by mostly handling independent human dramas. But Clooney up’d his films budget and scale from picture after picture. All the way up to his excellent 2014 film, the World War II dramadey “The Monuments Men” (what was at the time his biggest budget). For the most part, Clooney has had a successful career behind the camera as “Monuments Men” and 2011’s “Ides Of March” are his stand outs.
Now George Clooney returns to produce, direct and star in “The Midnight Sky”. A $100 million sci-fi space flick from original streaming service Netflix (premiering December 23). Working with his biggest directorial budget ever, Clooney mixes elements from his own space flick “Gravity” with the Oscar winning “The Revenant” to bring us a film adaptation of the novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Audiences will find much of “The Midnight Sky” familiar as it borrows from other space missions, such as: “Moon”, “The Martian”, “Contact” and “Interstellar” to name just a few. But all the familiarity helps put any original moments and ideas from “The Midnight Sky” into sharp focus.
It’s 2049 and humanity is being wiped out by something known as “The Event”, the details of which we are mostly left in the blank. The crew of a remote base on the Arctic Circle goes home to spend doomsday with their loved ones, all except for the terminally-ill Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), who decides to remain in Greenland. It’s not long before Augustine makes two essential discoveries: One, there’s a space station with a crew of five (played by A-list stars Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler and Demián Bechir) that’s about a half-day away from being close enough to receive radio signals from Earth.
Two, he’s not alone at the base, when he discovers that young silent girl Iris (Caoilinn Springall) has apparently been left behind when the staff departed. As the space station encounters its own difficulties making its way back home, Augustine and Iris must brave the ice to get to a weather station with a stronger antenna so that he can tell the travelers to turn back and return to the habitable moon of Jupiter (one that Augustine discovered) because there’s no more life on Earth.
The screenplay by Mark L. Smith (“The Revenant”) has to achieve several tasks including…connecting two different environments in the vast of space and in the deserted observatory in the Arctic Circle, where Clooney’s Augustine chose to stay behind. There is also the films cinematic speeds, where the first hour is a pot boiler, as we get to know Augustine, Iris and the space station crew.
The second hour goes for the gusto, with Clooney directing some well choreographed space action. Including staging a gorgeous spacewalk sequence that turns into a dilemma of faulty navigation and a space debris storm. The sequence calls back to Clooney’s “Gravity” and while “The Midnight Sky” doesn’t feature the high grade CGI of “Gravity. Clooney and his team still accomplish the vast of outer space and does well with it’s glowing CGI imagery.
Overall the first hour really isn’t that slow as the two hour run time moves quickly and within no time, I had realized I was already a hour and a half into the picture. “The Midnight Sky” takes the entire run time to fully expose what the film is ultimately up to, with a misdirection that cleverly conceals its true intent until it’s poignant end.
It’s Clooney who gets the most to do on screen out of the relatively small cast. Having to lose 30 pounds to depict that Augustine is gravely ill. Having to swallow pills and endure blood transfusions, while pockets of radiation slowly move in his direction. You can sense guilt within Augustine and Clooney’s acting in every scene is heartfelt in both moments of pain and moments of triumph. The cast of space station astronauts are filled with A-list stars. Each character is charismatic, with each one pulling you into their personal stories even if there are only small details to hold on to. Oscar nominees, Felicity Jones (“Theory Of Everything”) and David Oyelowo (“Selma”) have a heartfelt connection with each other, while Kyle Chandler (“Game Night”) and Demián Bichir (“Hateful Eight”) fill out a supporting cast who all make you care for their characters even though they have limited screentime.
“The Midnight Sky” is George Clooney at his most ambitious as a filmmaker. It has spectacle and the bigness of the picture is felt and understood, but Clooney keeps to what is so great about his other films of remaining and committing to smaller scenes involving people.
In order to bring it all together, Clooney brings together the best of the best for “The Midnight Sky” including cinematographer and director Anton Corbijn who worked with Clooney on “The American”. Special effects and visual specialists Matt Kasmir (“The Golden Compass”) and Chris Lawrence who worked with Clooney on “Gravity” and received an Oscar nomination for Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”. Then throw in a score by two-time Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat and you have all the ingredients to the making of a grade-A film. While it has gotten a very limited theatrical run to whatever theaters that are open. “The Midnight Sky” is proof that we need movie theaters and it is one that should be experienced on the big screen. It’s an exceptional film.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)