From the Archives: The Midnight Sky never manages to satisfyingly reconcile its two halves

From the Archives: The Midnight Sky never manages to satisfyingly reconcile its two halves

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

There are two half-movies which, when combined haphazardly, make the whole of The Midnight Sky. One is the story of a terminally ill man and his child companion venturing through the frozen tundra of the Arctic to complete a time sensitive mission, nature’s cruelest elements be damned. The other is about a crew of astronauts on a ship returning to Earth after scouting a distant planet where humanity may one day build a new civilization. The connective tissue between the stories is simple: in the two years that the astronauts have been away, Earth has suffered a catastrophic incident that has essentially destroyed the planet, and our snow-stranded sorta protagonist has made it his final duty to fire up a powerful communication station, deep in the Arctic, so he can tell the astronauts to turn their ship around and head back to the new planet, lest they die alongside the rest of humanity. Dark stuff.

Watching The Midnight Sky, one thing is obvious: the book it’s based on, Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton is likely very good. The dual story structure employed here tends to work quite well in text, and it’s clear that all the necessary pieces are there. But adapted here to film, each story is only allotted half of a full runtime to get the job done, resulting in a whole that, while functional and frequently satisfying, feels undercooked. While not a bad movie by any stretch, it’s just kinda…basic? What I mean is that plot wise, there’s really nothing new or surprising here, but the characters, insofar as how their depiction is intended, have the potential to be compelling, if only they had the time to build on screen what I’m sure exists on the page.

George Clooney, who also directed, and did so from behind one of the more satisfying cinematic beards of recent memory, plays one of our heroes, Augustine. He’s the man who discovered this new, potentially inhabitable planet, but whose fractured family life and terminal diagnosis has him content to be left at an abandoned outpost while the scant few who have survived the ambiguous, presumedly environmental crisis move underground. A little girl named Iris was accidentally left behind, and watching Clooney work backwards from “curmudgeon” to “father figure” is the kind of thing the actor does best. He’s phenomenal here, evoking a commendable amount of the audience’s empathy from very little. If the entirety of the film were devoted to just this portion of the story, there’s no doubt in my mind he could’ve carried it, especially with young Iris (Caoillin Springall) at his side.

In space we have the very pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones) and the soon-to-be-a-father captain, Adewole (David Oyelowo). The crew (Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, and Tiffany Boone) are a collection of typical movie astronaut types, namely the aging space cowboy, the wistful loner, and the rookie. Credit to the performers who, with little time for such things, are still able to establish the personalities of their characters and the relationships they share. Once again we see the pieces of a complete movie. If The Midnight Sky were just a character-forward space disaster flick, this is the perfect cast for it.

The bulk of the film is told in blocks. At the outset there is some intercutting between both stories, at least until the basic players are established, but then a baffling choice is made to bisect the movie almost entirely in half. We spend pretty much the entire front half with Augustine and Iris, then we move to outer space for the remainder. The last few minutes are devoted to tying the stories together, which it does quite nicely, but until then that lack of a rhythm between the two stories robs the film of its punch. By the time I was neck deep in the earthbound story, I had pretty much forgotten the astronauts exists. And when, after spending a large chunk of time in space, the narrative is brought back down to earth, my thoughts were “oh shit, I forgot about Clooney,” which I can’t imagine was intended. While I do believe that a more even distribution of scenes between each narrative would be helpful, I wonder if perhaps the book is also arranged in this way, and the film is trying to honor that. One day, when I inevitably read this book, I will report back.

This all goes exactly where you’d expect it to, which turns out to be a strength in a capacity that was also quite likely unintended. I mean to say that The Midnight Sky, despite having some thriller elements (a few of which are quite effective), is a pretty relaxing watch once you make peace with the fact that it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel in any way. Knowing exactly what’s going to happen at every moment is rather comforting, and it once again hints that the value of this story comes thorough better in the prose of the novel.

But hey, if Clooney sees an opportunity to make direct his own Gravity-inspired space disaster sequence, who the hell am I to stop him?

Midnight Sky is now available on Netflix.

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