There’s nothing worth seeing in ‘The Midnight Sky’

Tuesday, December 29, 2020 - 3:05pm

NOSELL

Netflix

“The Midnight Sky” is empty. 

Directed by and starring George Clooney (“Hail, Caesar!”), the film is based on the novel “Good Morning Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Both interweave the stories of an astronomer waiting out an unnamed apocalypse in an Arctic base and a crew of astronauts returning from a space exploration mission to a desolate Earth. 

Yet the movie misses the book’s soul entirely, like an asteroid curving away from Earth’s pale blue dot and spiraling through empty space. 

The novel keeps its science-fiction devices simple, only hinting at the apocalypse’s origins and the astronauts’ futuristic spaceship. Instead of languishing in world-building and shiny technology, Brooks-Dalton uses science fiction to place the human condition in base relief, exploring how catastrophe sharpens the pleasure and pain of normal human life — such as the beauty of a snow-covered, starlit landscape or the agony of losing a loved one. Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky,” however, blurs what Brooks-Dalton’s novel made crystal clear. 

In the book, Augustine, the astronomer played by Clooney, is tortured and exhausted. At the end of the world, he’s realized that he wasted his life pursuing science instead of human connection. This is ironic because Clooney’s film makes the same mistake. Instead of drawing out Augustine’s inner conflict or that of Sullivan, an astronaut played by Felicity Jones (“Rogue One”), “The Midnight Sky” fawns over its spaceship and Augustine’s high-tech Arctic base. 

In Brooks-Dalton’s novel, both the spaceship and Arctic complex are utilitarian and dwarfed by their respective polar and interstellar surroundings to show how, no matter how much humanity progresses, it still pales in the universe’s boundless expanse. In the film, the habitats fulfill practically every need of the characters. Everyone has private rooms, music libraries full of saccharine pop songs, state of the art medical care and holograms of families and friends to alleviate homesickness. 

In a story that is supposed to be about the horrifying strain of isolation and the inescapable danger of the universe, these shiny amenities snuff out the story’s soul. It is as if, when adapting Cormac McCarthy’s minimalist, wrenching apocalyptic novel “The Road,” the director gave its characters Tesla Cybertrucks and iPhones.

Mostly uninterested in psychological conflict, “The Midnight Sky” instead throws space storms, cracking ice, crashing planes and airborne poison at its characters to try and make things entertaining. Yet, while these setpieces are done with great special effects, the films’ characters Augustine and Sullivan are consistently sure of themselves, with the steeled gazes, wisecracks and apparent indestructibility of Marvel heroes.

They lack the emotion and complexity that would make the ice storms or fallout anything more than glossy CGI pixels on a screen. 

In the movie, Sullivan is also almost entirely defined by being pregnant, a borderline-sexist disservice to a character with immense potential. To make things worse, when the film finally decides to start waxing philosophically in its last few minutes, there is no psychological foundation for any of the miserable epiphanies. 

“The Midnight Sky” tries to straddle both psychological and spectacular science-fiction but stumbles into the yawning crevice of mediocrity. There is little to make its stale beauty any more memorable than a computer wallpaper. Even with its glimmering stars, “The Midnight Sky” is utterly empty.

Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at warricka@umich.edu.


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