The Midnight Sky
Have you ever watched a film and it immediately turns you off because of some questionable decisions by the creative team? That was my experience with The Midnight Sky. More so than just boredom, questionable direction, a shallow story, or bad acting, what soured my take on this film is nonsensical storytelling logic.
The Midnight Sky is a movie that requires you to turn off your brain in order to be able to watch it. But usually when a reviewer bestows such advice there will be lots of action or eye candy to make up for it. Mindless entertainment keeps you engaged even if you’ve got nothing going on upstairs. Plenty of films are very successful in that regard. The Midnight Sky is not. Switch off your mind and the film has nothing left to catch you. I don’t know how it achieved such a fete, but here we are.
The film’s opening and ending make you feel like you are watching a low-key television special, rather than an adventurous science fiction film. Those scenes show the characters doing mundane tasks while the credits flash around them. In regards to the film’s introduction, it serves as a very lethargic first impression. Opening scenes are critical for films to draw in the audience. But immediately right after the Netflix logo fades away, this film makes it obvious what you can expect; monotony.
Even when the pace does pick up, it is not entertaining because the film violates the cardinal rule of good moviemaking: making you care about the characters. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a slow burner, but the slow pace has to have thought-provoking ideas for the audience to muse over in the open spaces of the films’ narrative. The Midnight Sky is shockingly hollow. At its core, the film is about a scientist named only Augustine who may regret his decision not to be involved in the life of his daughter, instead focusing on his work. But, surprise surprise, Augustine’s work is what ends up being the last hope for the survival of mankind!
When disaster strikes Earth, an elderly Augustine who is facing terminal cancer, decides to live out his final days at a research station. But when a little girl is left behind, he has to become the father figure he could never be. At the same time, he has to warn a space ship coming back to earth not to make landfall in the planet’s hazardous condition. The ship has just returned from a potentially habitable moon, and returning there may be humanity’s last hope for survival. But in order to get a message across to the ship, Augustine has to trek through the dangerous arctic to another radio station in order to generate a signal which will be powerful enough.
The aforementioned aspect of the film which killed off my interest happens within the first few minutes. It makes mention of a potentially habitable moon found orbiting Jupiter. It is Augustine who is alluded to have been the one who made this discovery, but the film isn’t really interested in specifics. But this revelation makes no logical sense. How would there be a major moon orbiting Jupiter which we have yet to discover? The major moons of Jupiter have been known since the 17th century. This is just one of many aspects of this film which concerningly lacks scientific reasoning. As the film stumbles right out of the gate in this regard, I found it more and more difficult to give it the benefit of the doubt later on.
The film is based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight. I have not read the book, and so I can’t comment on how it compares to the film. All I can comment on is what is shown in the film, and the plot seemed to focus more on putting its characters into dangerous (and vague) situations, rather than actually telling a story about them. Augustine’s back story is relegated to a couple minute-long flashbacks. The rest of the time he’s putting around a kitchen preparing his cereal or having a coughing fit.
The film divides its time between two stories. The first story is Augustine’s and the second is the experience of the crew returning in the space ship. The story of the crew is actually a bit more interesting than Augustine’s because there is actual dialogue between characters, but their plot line is just as stagnant as Augustine's. The film focuses on how the crew is trying to make it back to Earth, and the challenges they face along the way. Just like Augustine, we are provided very little information about these characters beyond their reactions to the dangerous situations they are placed in.
The film goes into very little detail about the mission to this potentially habitable planet, and the crew’s findings there. The film also provides approximately zero details about the disaster that is causing the destruction of Earth. If there was more focus on the characters, perhaps those details would not matter as much. But without proper characterization, the audience’s mind can’t help but formulate these big questions which the film inexplicably never bothers to answer. Likewise, without answers to the big questions, we are forced to focus on the characters. But those characters are identified in a manner just as vague and lazy as the script approaches the pending destruction of humanity! It’s a lose-lose situation for the audience. No characterization, no worldbuilding.
There’s a twist at the end of the film which is supposed to make all of the secrecy worthwhile - a reason the filmmakers approached the story in the way they did. They leave little false clues to try and throw off the audience so you don’t guess the twist too early. But those efforts are wasted because when the twist does finally show up it doesn’t actually solve any of the film’s major problems. It doesn’t provide context where it was missing before, and it doesn’t improve our perspective on the characters because by the end of the film it is too late for us to care.
If a film is going out of its way to distort the audience’s perspective in order to set up a major twist at the end, a’la Fight Club or The Usual Suspects, that twist has to add meaningful content to the film’s message. Otherwise it just comes off as a twist for the sake of being a twist. That’s exactly the problem with The Midnight Sky. It moves forward with ambiguous details almost like it is teasing you. I kept hoping the truth would be revealed at the end and it would make sense why these major details were left off. But the questions you have at the beginning of the film are the same questions you have at the end.
George Clooney does a good job in his role as an actor, but as director he struggles to create an engaging movie-watching experience. We have seen this flaw in his filmmaking in the past. The pacing and the editing leave something to be desired, but more importantly he doesn’t reward his audience. Without something to look forward to, or something to find out, we’re just sitting around waiting for the credits to roll. The film seems to pride itself on keeping secrets from the audience, which just makes us frustrated rather than interested.
Which is a shame, because there is potential in the ideas that are discussed here. Unfortunately, the characters are distracted from addressing the big issues because they are busy fleeing from hungry wolves or dodging freak asteroid fields. These events are an attempt to add excitement to the experience, but don’t add anything to the plot. It’s just one of many examples of how the film belittles its audience. The Midnight Sky commits too many of the cardinal sins of cinema to be a worthy watch.
What’s Bad: George Clooney as a director, a script which tries too hard to make a cute twist work at the end, all but void of characterization, some acting struggles, doesn’t really do any worldbuilding, slow, non-consequential action, lacking scientific logic, flakey with the details.