The Midnight Sky

Once more, dear friends, into the post-apocalypse: So it goes in The Midnight Sky, a dystopian drama whose fluctuating tone — grim, with flickers of hopeful sentiment — feels almost comfortingly familiar, if a little on the nose for 2020.

George Clooney, wearing all his Hollywood hats again, directs, coproduces, and stars as Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist at a remote Arctic research station circa 2049 who refuses to leave when the rest of the residents and staff are evacuated pending some kind of unspecified global catastrophe. His cancer is terminal anyway, so what’s the point? Whether it's all over in a week or a month is just semantics.

But when a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) suddenly appears, a tiny silent stowaway somehow left behind in the shuffle, the prospect of an unmarked death recedes, replaced by the need to reach someone, anyone, out there who can care for her. Those options quickly narrow to the Aether, a distant spacecraft helmed by Commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo), along with his pregnant partner Sully (Felicity Jones) and fellow crewmates Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), and Maya (Hunters’ Tiffany Boone). Deep into an exploratory mission in search of a habitable alternative to Earth, they’ve been perplexed to find only radio silence on their return approach.

It falls on Augustine to tell them why — and to find a safer place for his charge in the meantime, if such a place exists. The script, adapted by Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2017 novel Good Morning, Midnight, has taken numerous liberties with what follows, include the aging down of its protagonist by some two decades. But Clooney’s Augustine is hardly youthful; hollow-eyed and heavily bearded, he’s a man in near-total bodily collapse, terminal but determined to see this last thing through.

Some clues to his motivation come in a series of soft-focus flashbacks meant to convey the single-minded drive and detachment of young Augustine (portrayed by Ethan Peck with a spooky Clooney vocal sync), even in the face of true love (Peaky Blinders’ Sophie Rundle). They're heavy breadcrumbs, too, for a later plot twist, though most viewers won't have to squint too hard to see the whole loaf.

There are several arresting visual set pieces, including a blizzard white-out that feels like the actual end of the world and a memorable lesson on the physics of blood dispersion in zero gravity. And there's the more ordinary pleasure, too, of seeing this many good actors, snug and earnest in their jumpsuits, go to work. But the film often feels less like its own distinct narrative than a sort of greatest-hits amalgam of movies like The Martian, Gravity, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and all the others that came before; one more long-haul tale of lonely astronauts and contrails in the cosmos. Grade: B

The Midnight Sky is in limited theaters Friday and begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 23.

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The Midnight Sky
The Midnight Sky

George Clooney stars in this sci-fi thriller about a lone scientist in the Arctic who races to stop a crew of astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.

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