The Midnight Sky continues George Clooney’s fascination for sci-fi, a rocky relationship that’s only really yielded one proper old fashioned hit – Gravity. Both Solaris and Tomorrowland seemed to fall into the dark hole between reviewer favourite and audience hit.
Unbowed, Clooney plugs on, directing here, and trying something rather bold as he attempts to weld the thoughtful meditative mood of Solaris to the gut-churning action dynamics of Gravity, a bold and some might say doomed endeavour. The postmodern futurism of Tomorrowland is nowhere to be seen.
The action takes place out in space and here on Earth – out there is a ship returning from scoping out a new planet to colonise, down here the planet has somehow tipped over into apocalypse and radioactivity is destroying all human life. There’s probably only one man left down here – Augustine Lofthouse, a mortally ill scientist who survives because he’s up in the Arctic, a haven from radiation, but for how long?
Up there, the ship is having comms trouble and so the crew have no real idea what’s been going on back home since they’ve been away. One of the film’s twin arcs plots Lofthouse’s journey – accompanied by a mute mystery child (Caoilinn Springall, all expressive eyes) who has missed the mass evacuation from the observatory where he’s been stationed – to a listening post even further north, where he hopes to gain contact with the returning space ship. The other arc tracks the crew returning to Earth, space jeopardy met en route via space walks, depressurising space suits, space debris etc.
In both there’s a sotto voce examination of the biological versus the elective family. Lofthouse has somehow picked up a “daughter”; in space the crew functions like a family, while comms expert Sully (Felicity Jones) is actually pregnant by Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo). Surely there’s a regulation about that.
Clooney bought the rights to Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight, and has got in screenwriter Mark L Smith to do the adaptation, presumably with a remit to inject a bit of the sort of wilderness jeopardy (wolves, blizzards, cracking ice) found in The Revenant, which Smith also brought to the screen.
In interviews Clooney has spoken of being aware that he’s trying to pull off a bit of a monster trick here. A jeopardy-in-space movie and a jeopardy-in-the-Arctic movie have nothing inherently in common, except both places are cold, and on top of that Clooney as a director is pitting himself against Alejandro Iñarritu (director of The Revenant) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Call it a Mexican stand-off, if you like.
And so, having set himself up for comparison with two top-notch, Oscar-winning directors, Clooney cannot be accused of lacking balls. He does a lot better out in space, in Gravity mode, than he does down below, in Revenant mode, and that’s largely because geography is easier to do in space. Action heroics require a dynamic understanding by the viewer of where everyone is situated at any given moment. Much easier in crystal clear, sharply lit outer space than in a total Arctic whiteout.
How the two realms eventually connect is a cheat, and is unsatisfying, but it does reveal Lofthouse as a man who threw away a possible family life in order to focus on his career. Which is novel. It’s usually women who have the career/family choice to make. Sully’s pregnancy reinforces the feeling that “something is being said” about the choices available to men and women.
What a cast. All underused. Oyelowo and Jones, could be anybody. Also on board are Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and the most underused of all, Demián Bichir as Sanchez, the “ordinary guy” guys that every space adventure since Alien has felt it obligatory to include.
Alexandre Desplat’s wall-to-wall score attempts to weld together the disparate stories and the underused characters as if it were a fitted carpet tying together rooms with different functions, while director Clooney, in spite of all his obvious visual references to Gravity, tonally seems to be leaning much more towards Solaris’s downbeat mood.
A lot of people didn’t like this movie. I did. For all its weirdnesses it manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. And on top of that it’s brave, since it knows it’s on a hiding to nothing and has a go anyway. Hooray for that.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021