In The Midnight Sky, which begins streaming on Netflix today, someone rings in 2049 just a little too hard. It’s been three weeks since a nuclear catastrophe of unexplained origin known only as “the event.” By February, mankind has mounted an effort to get the hell off the planet, shuffling onto spaceships for an indeterminate stay in space. Among those staying behind is Augustine Lofthouse. Surprisingly, he is not a crossover character from The Hunger Games. He’s one of the world’s foremost scientific minds for space travel, presently hobbled by terminal illness and hunkered down at an Arctic Circle observatory. Augustine is not only there to swig whiskey and crank Chris Stapleton. He’s determined to guide the spacebound crew of the Aether, a space shuttle in orbit and unaware of “the event,” away from landing on an abandoned, dangerous planet.
That’s the setup for director-star George Clooney’s first directorial effort since 2017’s scattershot satire Suburbicon and the first film he has appeared in since 2016’s Money Monster. (Portraying Augustine, Clooney approximates a cross of Harrison Ford and Nick Offerman.) As space odysseys go, it’s refreshing to see folks turn talkative and tentative rather than combative when tragedy strikes. Sky also serves up a pair of memorably tense moments, one of them a truly unsettling biological crisis aboard the Aether.
But neither Clooney nor The Revenant screenwriter Mark L. Smith can sustain any of that momentum. It’s especially disappointing given the pedigree of the cast on the Aether, whose mission has been to gauge the suitability of a Jupiter moon’s habitat as an eventual emigration point for mankind. (Spoiler alert: It will work! A different kind of spoiler? Sky does nothing with the notion that Augustine is also ostensibly endeavoring to save mankind even though he doesn’t know it.) Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bechir and Kyle Chandler are largely wasted as the Aether crew; ditto for the lesser-known Tiffany Boone, too.
Chandler’s genial reminiscence for his family on Earth is pretty much all there is to these celestial wanderers beyond generic mission-controlling dialogue and a banal group singalong to “Sweet Caroline.” One of the women onboard also learns she’s pregnant. Back at the Arctic Circle, Augustine discovers a precocious young stowaway named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) whom he must protect during a perilous journey to a relay station in a valley. There are also flashbacks to Augustine’s past relationship with an old girlfriend during which he’s played by Ethan Peck, grandson of Gregory (who also makes an appearance as Chandler screens On the Beach, wink-wink, in space). You roll the dice with any de-aging tactics these days. Clooney goes the audio route, his weird digitally warbled “young-man” voice coming from Peck’s mouth.
There are simply too many threads competing for attention in Sky, and the ways that these developments connect … well, the same thing happens in the recent Nicolas Cage film Jiu Jitsu, which features an alien that will destroy our planet if we don’t defeat the alien in a martial-arts tournament every six years, and it feels more resonant and sensible there. Smith hasn’t adapted Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight so much as he has kitchen-sinked it for maximum plot and minimal meaning.
Jim Bissell’s production design gives the Aether an organic look of tendons and membranes. The visual effects are first-rate. Alexandre Desplat’s score swells with insistent chugga-chugga moments when it must. Netflix has done what it often does with the big-name filmmakers it courts, which is throw them plenty of money to give things appropriate polish. But in a curious collision with Mank, a similarly dreary boondoggle with appreciable technical merits, Sky becomes just another movie about how idiosyncratic geniuses should be forgiven for their dickish actions because … well, they’re geniuses … right?
In its early moments, the film concerns itself more with connection and communication than volume and wonder, which is an interesting tactic that must have drawn Clooney to the material beyond the usual science-fiction trappings. It’s too bad that The Midnight Sky’s half-hearted transmission collapses into static over a squawky, short-circuiting connection.