Friday, January 1, 2021

Cue the Cellos: George Clooney Looks at the Midnight Sky Very Very Sadly

 You think you’ve got it bad? Actor/director George Clooney, usually known for his sparkling wit, here tackles a story that begins in the aftermath of a global apocalypse and  ends . . . God knows where. It seems he’s a research scientist stuck in the arctic, coping with a fatal illness and an ice-crusted beard. When his colleagues ship out, he’s all alone, giving himself transfusions, then microwaving his pathetic meals and eating them all alone in a large but empty dining hall.

 But wait! A small child has somehow been left behind during a group evacuation. She’s largely silent, but her presence brings out George’s long-suppressed paternal instincts. (We know they’re long suppressed, because of the occasional flashbacks in which a young guy who looks nothing like George Clooney tries to ignore a pretty blonde woman who is clearly his mate. She wants a family, but he shrugs her off because, well, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. And what a man’s got to do, apparently, is to give his all to the study of science.

 It’s possible this plot strand interested Clooney himself because, at 59, he is a fairly recent father. His twins, with wife Amal Alamuddin Clooney, are now 3 ½. In any case, his sometimes playful interactions with little Iris provide most of the film’s very few light moments.

 But don’t think for a moment that we spend the entire film in the arctic. No, we keep cutting away to a large and very fancy spacecraft that looks something like what a talented child would put together with Legos. This is the temporary home of five astronauts, nicely assorted in terms of gender and ethnicity. They’re just now returning from a newly-discovered moon of Jupiter, one that (remarkably enough) is completely conducive to human life. So they’re in a good mood, which is enhanced by the discovery that one of the women is newly pregnant by her boyfriend, the mission’s captain. This pregnancy has taken the two of them by total surprise (though they are, you know, scientists, basic biology doesn’t seem to be their strong suit). Still, everyone is jubilant, despite the fact there’s a spot of worry because they can’t seem to rouse anyone on earth through their various communications devices.

 Finally, after lots of lugubrious music by the usually capable Alexandre Desplat, Clooney and kid race across the frozen wasteland and find means to connect with the astronauts. His message: Don’t come home. But by this point, bad things are happening in space as well (triggering the film’s #1 grim and ghoulish sequence), and the astronauts’ choices are complicated. 

 If we’ve been following all of this, we’re expecting a super-grim finale. But of course this is a Hollywood film, one that anticipates uplift. And so in the grand tradition of such recent space epics as Gravity and Interstellar, we take a leap into the mystic. All the plot strands converge in a way that defies logic but is meant to make us feel somehow warm and cozy inside.

 Why take The Midnight Sky’s trip out into the universe when there’s so much to explore on our own planet?  Yes, I enjoyed The Martian, which stuck closely to the possible, but this conflation of outer space and mysticism is starting to get annoying. (Blame 2001: A Space Odyssey?) Personally, I’d rather be watching a glorious oldie like North by Northwest, or a smart, savvy exploration of life on earth like the new film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Why bother to fly off to the stars?




  1. Beverly, hate to admit, because this film had such promise, but you're spot on. We eagerly watched this last night . . . and ended up scratching our heads. Pointless, rambling, full of plot holes and lacking any of the excitement or charm of other recent space exploration dramas, like The Martian. Clooney, who can be so good, should have left the genre alone at Gravity. But I give it big points for a clever, unconventional presentation of closing credits (which I won't give away).

  2. I'm glad you agree with me, Steve. Regarding the closing credits, I went back and watched them again, because they hadn't particularly impressed me. On second viewing, I see the possibility for some poignancy, but not enough to earn the big points. Maybe I'm missing something?