The Midnight Sky asks a provocative question: what would you do if George Clooney were the last man on Earth? (Besides repopulate the planet, of course.) For a film buff, this question is somewhat existential. Cinema would endure, on one hand, since Clooney is one of Hollywood’s most consistently watchable stars. He commands the screen with any story. His turn as the grizzly Augustine in The Midnight Sky proves he could literally keep Hollywood alive by performing solo. However, Clooney is less reliable as a director. He might not be one’s desert island choice as the last guy on Earth making movies.
Clooney’s latest directorial effort is admittedly a major improvement over his previous feature Suburbicon. This tale of humankind’s last hope is Clooney’s most technologically accomplished work yet, if his most derivative. It’s a chillingly realistic glimpse into the future that offers a front row seat to Earth’s final days viewed through Clooney’s earlier filmography. Directing Mark L. Smith’s adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book Good Morning, Midnight, Clooney realises an ambiguous apocalypse in which Augustine stays solo in the Arctic when his colleagues move underground. As with the book, The Midnight Sky leaves the disaster largely unexplained, aside from the sharp scent of imminent doom. Something far worse than COVID-19 is in the air.
Going bigger and bolder, Clooney admirably continues to expand his canvas. But what he gains in technical accomplishment he loses as an auteur by painting in such broad strokes. The Midnight Sky, watchable as it is, proves definitively where Clooney’s talent resides: in front of the camera.
Last Man on Earth
Alone on the surface, Augustine undergoes dialysis, survives on daily routines, and scans the airwaves for signs of life. He bides his time. The opening act of The Midnight Sky is a portrait of peace amid chaos. While death engulfs the world around Augustine, causing others to flee or hide, the terminally ill man relishes his final days, as boring and repetitive as they may be. Clooney shows what stars are made of as the seasoned actor, completely devoid of vanity, evokes Augustine’s sense of serenity over ending his life on his own terms. Beneath the insulating band of his Santa Claus beard, there is a familiar hunger in Augustine’s eyes.
A few unexplained incidents at the research centre suggest something may be off, either in reality or in Augustine’s mind, as he longs for connection. A fire in the kitchen, say, or a plate in the mess hall that he doesn’t remember abandoning. The mystery quickly resolves itself, though, when Augustine discovers a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall), hiding in a cupboard. Presumably left behind by her parents during the mass exodus, Iris becomes Augustine’s reluctant ward.
Clooney builds a fine rapport with Springall, who holds her own as a mostly silent performer. Iris inhabits the research like an apparition, summoned almost as soon as Augustine feels the chill of loneliness. She could easily be the daughter of Clooney and Natascha McElhone in Solaris – another flick saturated with melancholy isolation. One can’t fully explain the sense of déjà vu without a spoiler, though. (More on that soon.) Augustine and Iris communicate through a form of silent physical comedy. They fling peas at one another and gradually accept their companion’s presence. It turns out that the reluctant babysitter is actually great with kids.
Up in the Air
Augustine receives a message from afar, finally, from an astronaut named Sully, played by Felicity Jones (The Aeronauts). En route back to Earth after exploring a new planet, Sully leads the communications panel for a team of scientists desperately concerned about the radio silence from Earth. She and Augustine communicate briefly in static-y snippets. He advises her not to return home.
High in the sky, Sully and her team, which includes captain Adewole (David Oyelowo), family men Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), and nervous rookie Maya (Tiffany Boone), debate returning home or making a U-turn to their newly-discovered and presumably habitable planet. The mission also includes a new member conceived along the journey. Sully and Adewole, united by the intimacy of their work, are expecting a baby. This element is new to the story to accommodate Jones’s pregnancy. The baby bump is a novel addition to The Midnight Sky, but one that renders the outcome somewhat more predictable. (The book finds a nice complement to Augustine and Iris’s story with Sully and Adewole’s own search for connection.)
Clooney’s vision of space, however, is a technical marvel. The Midnight Sky dazzlingly realises the spatial relations of the research centre and the world outside among the stars. Lifting some tricks from Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, but without needing the snazzy 3D effects, Clooney lets his performers float on horizontal and vertical axes. In addition to striking production design that envisions the future without making it seem too far, far away, The Midnight Sky manages to make outer space feel like home on Earth. It’s just as cold as Augustine’s bunker in the Arctic, albeit without the gravity.
Isolation and Connection
The most striking change from page to screen, however, is that the narratives on Earth and space are fairly detached. Brooks-Dalton’s book follows a rhythmic pattern in which one chapter outlines Augustine’s actions and the subsequent chapter explores Sully’s story. Even when the two characters aren’t communicating directly, their stories are in dialogue. Parallel actions, mutual concerns, and shared traits create a sense of continuity.
The Midnight Sky doesn’t capture the relationship between Augustine and Sully as effectively, which complicates a major plot twist. On one hand, the fault resides in an issue of pacing. The plot meanders instead of building to something grand. Awkward flashbacks see Augustine as a young man, played by Ethan Peck yet voiced by the seasoned Clooney, finding his vocation while distancing himself from his wife and child. Clooney and Smith don’t provide the crumbs to lure viewers into The Midnight Sky’s revelation about lost connections. It’s Contact-lite, echoing a better film about the grandeur and intimacy of the universe.
However, The Midnight Sky arguably benefits from the timing of its release. Where one could fault the film for being emotionally cold, there is something ineffably poignant about seeing two distant souls buoyed communication. Augustine and Sully embody the hunger for contact that starves us in 2020. Particularly as Clooney looks to the sky in inquisitive wonder, and the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat evokes the enchanting, reassuring sparkle of the stars, The Midnight Sky evokes the overwhelming scale of our planet when one feels alone. The outstanding final shot of Sully and Oyelowo, on the other hand, harnesses Michael Clayton’s power for the actorly end-credits long take with an image that reminds us that life goes on. The Midnight Sky ultimately reassures us that isolation is just a state of mind.
The Midnight Sky debuts on Netflix on December 23.