It feels right to have a film about the end of the world be a cold thing, literally and figuratively. And so it is with THE MIDNIGHT SKY, a story set three decades or so in the future is an uncertain blend of personal regret with planetary destruction. Set both in the arctic and in space, the temper rarely rises above freezing as the human population dwindles and a terminally ill man (George Clooney) attempts to save his soul by doing one good deed.
He’s Augustine, a hulking, terminally ill scientist who years before hypothesized that a moon of Jupiter might be the saving of humanity. He was right, though he doesn’t know it yet. The exploratory mission there is on the verge of returning after two years away, and as the rest of the arctic station scrambles to be home when the end comes, Augustine stays behind in order to warn the two women and three men aboard the spacecraft to turn back when the come back within radio range. Aboard the spacecraft, communications office Sully (Felicity Jones) is having nightmares about being left behind on Jupiter’s moon by Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo), the math genius who is also the father of Sully’s newly discovered pregnancy.
As Augustine bides his time in the deserted station, giving himself the blood transfusions that will keep him going long to enough to sound the alarm. One day he notices a bowl of half-eaten cereal that he didn’t leave, and then a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) with big eyes and selective mutism. She may refuse to speak (take note, there’s a message there), but she refuses to leave Augustine’s side and soon he begins to feel protective towards rather than just responsible for her. In space, a meteor strike takes out the communications (take further note), precipitating a crisis as the crew members vie to come up with what Sully and Adewole will name their daughter.
As a director, Clooney keeps the energy low, and the visuals geometrical. They are lovely, but in this monochromatic world, soporific. The effect is to make the action seem to be in slow-motion, even as it plays out at a normal speed. As the crew, Oyelowo, Jones, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, and Tiffany Boone have an easy camaraderie that makes that part of the story more compelling than Clooney’s thousand-mile stares. Their backstories are more interesting, too, courtesy of holographic technology that allows the crew to interact with their virtual families if only by repeating the recordings over and over. Meanwhile on Earth, Augustine is reliving in his mind as his younger self (Ethan Peck with Clooney’s voice dubbed in) meets and loses Jean (Sophie Rundle) in a predictable remix of self-absorbed scientist and woman who refuses to take second place in his life.
Credit where it’s due for the suspense of a space-walk to repair the meteor damage, and the genuine sorrow that its aftermath brings. Jones kept quiescent by Clooney, nonetheless evinces a glowing spirit, and all of the crew finds emotional resonance in a chilly cinematic environment as they dream of home, and then discover that its gone.
We are never told exactly what happened the Earth. It’s described as an 6“event” as we pick up the action three weeks later, and we do see the devastation as the crew does from space. It’s arresting, as are many of the visual effects that owe their inspiration to, among others, Kubrick’s 2001. The spacecraft itself is a riff on that other Jupiter mission, embellished with fiddly bits that make it a kinetic sculpture as well as a mode of transportation. It’s the best of the references.
Overall, THE MIDNIGHT SKY’s familiarity of story and style has the feeling of leftovers as lifeless as the continual hangdog expression on Clooney’s face rather than of dynamic reinvention. As it ends, the intended gut punch is undermined by facile expediency. One comes away irked at such obvious manipulation and wishing that this telling of humanity’s last hurrah had more substance.