As an actor, George Clooney serves up self-deprecation and charm; as a filmmaker, the same impulses come across as bitter and ironic convictions. That’s certainly the case in “The Midnight Sky,” a gorgeous take on the apocalypse that doesn’t try to reinvent the formula because, well, you know how these things go. Clooney directs and stars in this ambitious adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel, and there’s much to appreciate about his by-the-book approach: Despite the blockbuster budget, he’s crafted a wistful movie about the end of the world, laced together with mournful gazes at the icy tundra and the sad revolutions of spacecraft en route to its dying home.
As it slips between these lyrical settings, Clooney conjures both the cosmic awe of “Gravity” and the eerie isolation of “The Thing,” an admirable set of traditions that lend an imitative feel for much of the movie. Yet for the actor-filmmaker, this somber, effects-driven tone poem marks his most sophisticated filmmaking in 15 years — that would be “Good Night, and Good Luck” — and it’s matched by a melancholic performance on par with his Oscar-winning turn in “Syriana” that same year. While it struggles through some awkward plot twists and clunky tangents, “The Midnight Sky” never loses grasp of the chilly atmosphere that inspires every moment; if only it there was something fresh about that.
Nothing in “The Midnight Sky” can top its opening segment, which finds Clooney as the bearded exoplanet researcher Augustine roaming an abandoned Arctic research station just a few weeks after an unspecified nuclear attack. In short order, the Earth has become uninhabitable, a botched global rescue mission doomed most of humanity, and a team of astronauts sent to explore the habitable Jupiter satellite that Augustine discovered has been left stranded in the middle of the solar system without a clue. As he wanders vast rooms filled with screens that spout dispiriting data, and the yawning emptiness of the Arctic beams in, Augustine seems like he was born to wallow — gulping whisky and cranking up the country music, he’s a pity party incarnate.
“The Midnight Sky” works wonders with Clooney’s face and the desolation around him, but before you can say “All Is Lost,” the movie gives him a peculiar partner in crime when he comes across a mute child named Iris (Cailinn Springhall) who materializes in the station under mysterious circumstances and complicates his mission. Abandoning the place in search of a safer headquarters, “Midnight Sky” sends them into a frigid variation on “The Road,” as they traverse uneasy terrain with danger lurking at every turn. As if that’s not enough to tackle, “Midnight Sky” heads into “Gravity” mode and turns to space.
That’s where Sully (Felicity Jones) and a small team of astronauts drift back toward an Earth that won’t answer their call. The ship, an awe-inspiring craft first captured in an acrobatic CGI camera that swings out from the window, has more depth to it than much of the crew. Though Sully and her partner Tom (David Oyelowo) face a complex dilemma — Sully’s pregnant with their child at the most inopportune of moments — the rest of the crew are an underdeveloped set of loners (Demián Bichir and Kyle Chandler as wistful dudes who miss their family, plus an affable Tiffany Boone, whom the plot regards as disposable).
With these elements in place, “The Midnight Sky” hops between Augustine and his young companion’s perilous journey through the ice, and the space station’s vain attempts to reach their home, eventually finding a way to bring the two of them together. At best, screenwriter Mark L. Smith taps his experience on “The Revenant” to give Augustine’s adventure across the ice a spare, uneasy quality that works on its own. But he and Clooney struggle with the space opera, which includes one endearing spacewalk set to “Sweet Caroline” but otherwise can’t muster anything beyond tipping its hat to movies that have done this before (in addition to “Gravity,” the echoes of “The Martian” as well as the Clooney-starring “Solaris” remake overwhelm any sense of ingenuity).
On top of it all, “The Midnight Sky” frequently turns to cheesy flashbacks to elaborate on Augustine’s sense of guilt over his relationship woes with a fellow scientist (Sophie Rundel). In these sequences, he’s played not by a de-aged Clooney in “The Irishman” mode but Ethan Peck, a rather strange move in a movie filled with special effects that’s made all the more discombobulating because it tasks a young, rather unfamiliar face with playing one of the most famous ones working today. It also distracts from the movie’s best scenes. “The Midnight Sky” works well as an epic in intimate, but frequently gets off-track when stuffing more details into a busy narrative that seems just as eager to shrug them off, right down to an inane third-act twist that upends everything leading up to it.
Nevertheless, with its soulful Alexadre Desplat score and Martin Ruhe’s lyrical cinematography as its guide, the movie unleashes a mostly welcome stream of sci-fi pastiche, tapping into the the fundamental appeal of its precedents. Jones’ frantic need to sort out the future pairs nicely with Clooney’s sunken eyes, and in its closing minutes, “The Midnight Sky” draws that contrast into sharp focus — the desire to hold on and the despondence of giving up on life — and its best moment arrives with the credits, as two survivors map out the next stage of their lives.
There’s a strange convergence of creepiness and hope baked into that climax. Released in the midst of a pandemic, “The Midnight Sky” has undeniable parallels with the vacant environments across the world; at the same time, the movie hints at the potential for life to go on under the most dire conditions. And it’s a welcome reminder that no matter the challenging isolation of modern times, things could get a whole lot worse.
“The Midnight Sky” starts streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, December 23.