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The Midnight Sky Review: Clooney's Sci-Fi Drama Doesn't Fully Stick the Landing

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George Clooney's directorial career got off to a strong start with well-received dramas such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. However, his more recent efforts - like The Monuments Men and Suburbicon - failed to make an impact with critics or viewers. That roller coaster of a filmography made it difficult to get a read on Clooney's latest director credit, The Midnight Sky, which sees him try his hand at a sci-fi drama. As one of Netflix's high-profile releases this holiday season, there was hope the film would mark a comeback for Clooney the helmsman, but it doesn't quite hit all the marks. The Midnight Sky is a well-made and ambitious piece of sci-fi filmmaking, but it lacks the proper emotional punch it needed to truly connect.

The Midnight Sky is set in 2049, a few weeks after an apocalyptic event renders Earth inhabitable. As the world's population evacuates, scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) opts to stay behind, as he is suffering from a terminal illness and doesn't have much longer to live. Augustine resides at the Barbeau Observatory outpost in the Arctic Circle, monitoring space missions. He discovers the crew of the Aether are en route back to Earth following their mission to Jupiter moon K-23, a possible new home for humanity. Alongside Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a young girl he found hiding in the observatory, Augustine ventures out to make his way to another outpost with a stronger communications signal, so he can alert the Aether crew of what happened.

While The Midnight Sky was made for Netflix and primarily will be watched at home, it boasts a grand scope that would be fitting for the big screen. Technically, the film is very impressive, with sharp visual effects work and production design helping immerse the viewer in the world. The two main locales The Midnight Sky flips between - the Arctic Circle and outer space - underscore the loneliness and isolation the characters feel, efficiently depicting the harshness of their situations. There's a general sense of helplessness that runs throughout The Midnight Sky, further illustrated by the set pieces Clooney stages. The action effectively showcases the dangers the characters face in the film's parallel storylines. In terms of genre thrills, The Midnight Sky doesn't do anything all that new, but it still gets the job done.

Where the film falters a bit is in the script, credited to Mark L. Smith. Cutting back and forth from Augustine and Iris in the Arctic and the Aether crew flying through space, the narrative does get into a nice flow over the course of its two-hour runtime. However, neither story is fully engaging on an emotional level. This isn't for lack of trying, as there are multiple moments meant to pull on the heartstrings (see: Aether crew sitting amongst holograms of their friends and family from Earth to relive memories). The main issue is there isn't much to the individual characters, as many of them are thinly drawn and aren't explored beyond the surface level. That makes it difficult to fully connect to the narrative, as some beats fall flat or take longer than expected to pay off. This undercuts some of what Clooney is going for, despite his best intentions.

In terms of the cast, Clooney delivers a solid performance as Augustine, dialing back his natural onscreen charisma to play a broken man nearing the end of his life. This may not be one of the more memorable characters in his career, but it still allows viewers to see the actor in a different light and Clooney is engaging to watch. Springall, who's paired with Clooney for most of the movie, holds her own against him in a largely silent performance, mainly conveying Iris' feelings through nonverbal cues. The two have some nice and cute moments peppered throughout The Midnight Sky, but it might not be enough to make the dynamic truly land with some. As for the Aether ensemble, Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo have a charming rapport as couple Sullivan and Adewole, but the others don't have much to work with. Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, and Demi√°n Bichir are left trying to elevate their supporting characters, who largely feel like they're there to simply round out the Aether crew.

Over the past couple of years, Netflix has emerged as a main player on Hollywood's awards circuit, but The Midnight Sky is not shaping up to be one of the streamer's top contenders this year. Netflix is definitely better served prioritizing Mank and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Even though there's a lot to admire in The Midnight Sky, it never fully comes together and sticks the landing. This isn't to say it's not worth checking out for sci-fi fans, but it isn't one people need to immediately queue up on streaming over the holidays. Still, it's a step in the right direction for Clooney as a director, and hopefully his next outing will see him get back to the form he demonstrated earlier in his career.

The Midnight Sky is now streaming on Netflix. It runs 122 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some bloody images and brief strong language.
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