Film review: The Midnight Sky

After a promising start, George Clooney’s new sci-fi opus sabotages itself with mood-breaking flashbacks and cringeworthy dialogue, writes Alistair Harkness

George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in The Midnight Sky PIC: Philippe Antonello/Netflix
George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in The Midnight Sky PIC: Philippe Antonello/Netflix

The Midnight Sky (12A) **

George Clooney’s seventh film as a director has plenty in common with the three or four you probably don’t remember him making, primarily the fact that it’s really not very good. An expensive looking sci-fi opus about a terminally ill astrophysicist (played by Clooney) on a mission to warn a crew of deep-space astronauts not to return to Earth following an environmental catastrophe, it’s a mishmash of sci-fi clichés with a twist M Night Shyamalan might reject as too hokey.

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That it starts off promisingly enough only compounds the frustration that follows as it moves further away from the initial nods it seems to be making to his and Steven Soderbergh’s stripped-down, rather excellent redo of Solaris. Those early scenes see a bearded, emotionally hollow Clooney stumble around a newly evacuated Arctic substation, self-administering blood transfusions, drinking too much whisky and scanning the radars for signs of life from a years-long research mission to a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter that his character, Augustine, discovered as a younger man.

The eeriness of his abandoned locale matches Augustine’s haunted psyche and his fractious mental state is called further into question by the possibility that he might not actually be alone. All of which is nicely handled, so it’s too bad that almost immediately Clooney feels a need to over-egg proceedings with mood-breaking flashbacks detailing the love Augustine has sacrificed in pursuit of his career (“There’s a place called Portobello beach. Have you heard of it?” is one of the more unexpected pick-up lines to pop up in a major movie.) It doesn’t help that Clooney opts against using digital trickery to play his younger self, casting Ethan Peck instead, who, let’s just say, is no ER-era George Clooney.

Thenceforth, the film drifts into a more spectacle-laden affair as the action cuts drearily between the aforementioned mission – led by Felicity Jones’s pregnant astronaut and David Oyelowo as her partner and the ship’s commander – and Augustine’s survival-movie-style quest to reach a working satellite in order to warn them not to return. Although Clooney was clearly taking notes from Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Gravity, his cosmic set pieces just feel like inferior echoes of that film’s big moments (as well as those of Interstellar and Ad Astra) and their effectiveness is further diminished by the laden, cringeworthy dialogue his more-than-capable cast have to deliver. But it’s that aforementioned twist that’s the final nail in the coffin, retrospectively making a mockery of at least one big action sequence and jaw-dropping only in how brazenly the film uses such a gimmicky and derivative device to deliver an emotional payoff it doesn’t come close to earning.

The Midnight Sky is on select release in UK cinemas from 11 December and streams on Netflix from 23 December

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