The Midnight Sky is like one of the best road trips you’ve ever taken, but when you get where you’re headed it turns out the place never existed. As much as that leaves you deflated, and isn’t a road trip you’re going on again, it was still a good trip. George Clooney (who stars and directs) takes us on a strange journey through the end of mankind based on the book Good Morning, Midnight. As things open, Augustine (Clooney) is watching helicopters load up with those abandoning an arctic research base. It turns out that the world is ending, though details aren’t given on the cause, and leaving the base is a now or never affair… but, Augustine is staying. Having a fatal illness, Augustine decides there’s no point in leaving, and doesn’t think there is anywhere to go anyway.
As people load up, there’s a Home Alone moment in which we are reassured that a little girl is safely in the other helicopter, which sets the stage for Augustine to stumble across Iris (Caoilinn Springall). As much as Augustine was generally settling into a lonesome closing of the curtain, he does actually have one last job, contacting a spacecraft on its way back to Earth. Now he has more on his plate than he expected, and he’s going to need to take a trek through the arctic besides.
The film also gives us a bit of the journey, and reaction, of the astronauts, among them Sully (Felicity Jones), Adewole (David Oyelowo), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Naturally, learning that the population of Earth is wiped out isn’t enough, and the flight will go through a number of technical problems, perhaps based as much on the audience expectation that they will obviously be required to suit up and go outside. In an ironic twist, these astronauts were seeking out a place that people could live beyond Earth, and they found one. Their joyous, positive mission completed after two years, they’ve now lost contact with Earth.
Part of The Midnight Sky is a fairly brilliant movie and story, meandering along with a character and taking apart both his present and past as he is forced to face his life in not only unimaginable solitude, but as an existence so close to the end of everything. Augustine’s has been a life in service of his work, and one apparently spent dealing with certain anti-social tendencies. Now, he reflects on what it all means while braving the arctic elements in an effort to save a few lives, while trying to figure out what to do with a small child.
Unfortunately, that movie doesn’t believe in itself enough, and thinks that a story isn’t a story, and an examination of character isn’t an examination of character, unless someone is in immediate danger once in a while, and audiences only stick around if the overarching fact that literally everyone is about to die is buoyed up by someone falling in freezing water and/or going head-to-head with a meteor shower every so often.
The story is one that is quite powerful, and is surprisingly elevated by Iris’ chipping away at Augustine’s shell and serving as a catalyst for his trips into flashback. Surprising in the caliber of the execution, not insofar as the theory. But, it’s working at cross purposes to the needless “action and splendor” throwaways. Tension for tension’s sake is just a distraction from more important aspects of a story that, let’s face it, is a fable anyway.
Beyond that, the film is only taken apart by a final fifteen minutes which finds virtually everyone making decisions that border on being just plain silly. Oddly, I find it more forgivable than I would in the case of many other films/stories, but it’s still there and still breaks everything else apart. Clooney and Springall are wonderful together, and if Clooney had nothing else going for him, he’d still have the delivery of this particular struggle, which seems nearly impossible.
Aging and regrets, or at least visiting one’s own scorecard, are common enough, and the range of emotions required aren’t the easiest to believably deliver. Here, Augustine is as often “wondering forward,” as he is questioning his past, and his questions eventually lean more toward whether or not it all led to things that couldn’t be improved. It’s not the consequences or choices so much as the sheer gravity of it all. That’s a far more difficult burden to put on one character’s shoulders and if you can’t read it on their face, it won’t matter what they do.