It is time?
Can we say this now, after his disastrously-off “Catch-22” on TV, his satiric misfire “Suburbicon” and the sentimental slog of “Monuments Men?”
Behind the camera, the magic that was George Clooney most definitely was George Clooney, at this stage. As a filmmaker, he’s lost his fastball and curveball, if not his slider.
“The Midnight Sky” is a gorgeous, handsomely-mounted piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi that lured a stellar cast, which surrounds Clooney — Letterman bearded in this outing.
It’s a downbeat tale of a dying Earth “after the event,” a dying scientist (Clooney) and his efforts to save a foundling left behind at his research station and the spacecraft he had a hand in sending off to explore a new “exoplanet” suitable for terra-forming for the human race to settle.
But “Midnight” is “Martian” without the whizbang humor and optimism, so downbeat it’s like the saddest parts of “Gravity” and all of “Solaris.” The pathos he reaches for and not one actor manages to summon up is contained in another film we catch a character watching — the post-nuclear war weeper “On the Beach.”
While Clooney & Co. make “Midnight Sky” watchable, it’s so emotionally drained, derivative and over-familiar as to be akin to watching paint dry — richly-tinted, shiny acrylic paint, if that’s any consolation.
A lovely, dark and spare opening sets the story up. In 2049, our scientist is the last holdout at a research station above the Arctic Circle. He stayed there by choice when “the event,” which plays out like a pandemic on his digital global maps, struck. Flashbacks show the evacuation, warnings about keeping up with his “transfusions” (it looks like he’s on self-administered dialysis).
In between flashbacks that depict a life uninterrupted by science and work, save for one failed love affair, he has the brainstorm of trying to contact a spacecraft sent to a distant moon in the Solar System to check out its habitability. No answer.
On that “2001: A Space Odyssey” vessel (with Architectural Digest interiors), the crew is in the dark about Earth. Sully (Felicity Jones) notes all the communications they’ve tried to reestablish. The captain (David Oyelowo) and crew (Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir) lose themselves replaying old holographic chats and visits as they make their way “home.”
The silent seven year-old “left behind” at the Arctic station (Caoilinn Springall, spitting image of “My Girl” era Anna Chlumsky) becomes a new problem for our survivor scientist. And while he doesn’t let us see him “work the problem,” there is a powerful radio transmitter across the Arctic that they can try and reach.
The story signposts start out familiar and venture onto a well-worn path in writer-for-hire (“Vacancy,” “The Revenant,” “Overlord”) Mark L. Smith’s adaptation of the Lily Brookes-Dalton novel. You have an idea what the crew of the ship will go through, although a “Sweet Caroline” sing-along takes you by (unpleasant) surprise. On Earth, the good doctor’s quest puts him in peril in ways he and we cannot necessarily trust as “real.”
The obstacles to our two narratives are as predictable as an Alabama/Ole Miss point spread. The waypoints of the ship and the scientist-with-child journeys are pro forma to the point of pro formula.
And did I mention what a gloomy bummer of a movie it is?
Which brings us back to our original assertion, that Clooney, a fascinating figure, articulate spokesman for human progress and a Righteous Dude, is a lot more interesting off set than on, these days.
And putting him in charge behind the camera doesn’t remedy that, and hasn’t in some time.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some bloody images and brief strong language
Cast: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, Caoilinn Springall and Demian Bichir.
Credits: Directed by George Clooney, script by Mark L. Smith, based on a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:58