Saturday, 2 January 2021

Movie Review: The Midnight Sky (2020)

A visually spectacular science fiction drama, The Midnight Sky combines an end-of-the-world scenario with a crisis-in-space and personal torment, but gets distracted by multiple survival misadventures.

Earlier in his career, astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Ethan Peck) identified Jupiter's moon K-23 as possibly life-sustaining. Around the same time he started an intense relationship with Jean Sullivan (Sophie Rundle), but eventually he neglects her and she leaves him.

Now in 2049, the Earth is being rendered uninhabitable by an unknown cataclysmic event. The ailing Augustine (George Clooney) elects to stay behind at an Arctic research station while everyone else evacuates. Seemingly alone and terminally sick, he stumbles upon a seven year old girl he calls Iris (Caoilinn Springall), who barely speaks and appears to have been left behind. She becomes his companion as he attempts to make contact with the space craft Aether travelling back to Earth from K-23.

On-board Aether are Dr. Sullivan (Felicity Jones) and Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) along with other crew members, returning from a two year mission to test K-23's viability to support life. Unaware of the situation on Earth and unable to communicate with anyone, the Aether crew members also have to deal with a navigation malfunction.

Undoubtedly ambitious and bathed in beauty, The Midnight Sky tries to tell too many stories at once but suffers from ponderous pacing in addition to fragmented focus. Working from the Mark L. Smith script adaptation of a book by Lily Brooks-Dalton, director George Clooney does establish an intriguing premise. A debilitated last-man-on-a-dying-Earth attempting to connect with astronauts grappling with an unexplained communications blackout carries exquisite early promise.

But for too long the stories of Augustine and the Aether crew remain disconnected and divergent, squandering the early momentum. To reach an Arctic station with a more powerful antenna Augustine and the curious but silent Iris trudge across the hazardous ice and snow, and suddenly The Midnight Sky becomes a bland survive-the-elements trek. Meanwhile Aether encounters navigation issues and strays into dangerously unmapped space, and soon the crew are embroiled in an emergency repairs drama. By the time Clooney gathers up all the stray pieces for the final eloquent 15 minutes, it's well too late to salvage the original intentions.

The sequences in space are delivered with a sometimes majestic artistry, Aether a particularly elegant creation both inside and out. Clooney's performance is all existential broodiness, while Oyelowo, Jones and the other space travellers (Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, and Demián Bichir) each get a couple of scenes to reflect on their predicament.

The Midnight Sky launches with a bang, but is soon drifting in both space and snow.



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