While so much sci-fi explores unknown and uncharted territory, The Midnight Sky decides to boldly go where every other film has been before. And boldly is charitable. This George Clooney directed, and starring, feature is an awkward mess of science fiction tropes and faint echoes of better films. The bizarre thing is, at points it is a limp repetition of films Clooney actually starred in, as it overtly copies Gravity and is definitely influenced by the Soderbergh rendition of Solaris (in terms of aesthetic, especially) – never getting anyway near the poeticism of the Tarkovsky.
The biggest crime of the film is not theft, it is being incredibly dull. In trying to be every film, The Midnight Sky ends up completely uncompelling. We jump between three different narrative perspectives: a flash back sequence; life on earth and a space ship returning to Earth. The flashback underscores the story on Earth while the other two storylines eventually converge. You could even go as far as arguing that these storylines all thematically echo, or at least rhyme, but the filmmaking and structure is so jumbled that the end result is the sensation of disparate films shoved together.
The Earth based narrative starts out poorly and, arguably, only gets worse. Clooney is the last person, seemingly, left on Earth after humanity flee due to having destroyed the environment. Clooney is in full sad dad mode, think Pitt in Ad Astra but worse (another film which tried to be every sci-fi film), and spouts some of the worst dialogue. To begin with, his every line is a flat retort, some hollow platitude or failed attempt at profundity that instantly pushes the viewer away from the character. We then just stick with him as he lingers on Earth, until the film decides it needs a plot – so introduces a child. He becomes guardian of this child, an event that coincides with him receiving a message from a spaceship returning to Earth, unaware of the inhospitable state it is in. The film goes from nothing going on to suddenly too much spread too thin. Not enough time is spent with any of the right things and none of the storylines cohere.
We then start popping into space every once in a while. The story in space obviously relates to the one on Earth because they are returning to Earth, but that doesn’t mean their lives and narratives are important or relevant to the film. But, that doesn’t stop The Midnight Sky. This film decides to be a completely different film, now in space, as we spend time with the personal lives of these space ship residents. They are uniformly underwritten and flatly performed, a probable fault of direction as the cast is full of talented performers. This would also be of a piece with the direction as a whole. The cinematographer finds some beauty in static shots and incidental footage – enabled by some actually very good visual effects work – but the moment to moment visual storytelling is incredibly weak. Shot choices are distractingly odd, often focusing in on single people – or moving on far too quickly – in a way that makes the film look like it was never actually filmed with all the actors together. The visual storytelling is just incredibly subpar, the camera never seems sure of what to do and never adds to the narrative – a feeling that is only exacerbated by the jumbled structure.
The meld of perspectives just does not work. There is a large amount of tonal dissonance made only more pertinent by the film never actually succeeding at any of its grasps at tone. You can see what the film is trying to do, often going for pathos, but with no real coherence everything falls flat. It is a classic example of a very simple narrative, with no real interesting characters, being disguised by an atypical structure. Alas, it doesn’t work at all, adding confusion and viewer alienation to a film that does not compel anyway. It seems to want to be a thoughtful and character driven piece but the writing is not good enough to make any of this work. This goes back to familiarity. Every inch of the film feels utterly predictable and familiar that it is hard to accept it having a unique identity – or any identity at all.
Though, as mentioned, there is some visual appeal here. The camera is poorly directed but the images it picks up are sharp, and supported by interesting production design. Visually, it builds an interesting world that uses familiar icons of the genre in a way that feels different enough. It is not the most striking or original looking film, but the aesthetic feels thought out and cohesive. There are also moments, like one where the film just decides to be Gravity (but not as good) for a while, in which the effects work really stands out. It is not always visually convincing, and the direction does not make the most of the effects work, but there is some actual brilliance here hiding away in this bad movie.
Alas, some nice imagery is not enough to warrant a recommendation. This is a turgid film. Its emotional beats rely on tired tropes and are hampered by poor storytelling, and the film has nothing beyond this. There is no coherent philosophy, no interesting themes and no overall coherence. It sounds nice and looks nice – despite poor visual storytelling – but this Midnight Sky just isn’t worth staying up for.