ST. LOUIS — Augustine (George Clooney) has the look of a man who has failed at life. Weary dialed up to 12 and carrying an additional dose of weathered guilt, this isolated scientist in the Arctic seems to lock away all his shortcomings in his long gray and white bushy beard, like a roadblock between the brain and heart.
The year is 2049 and Earth is being suddenly evacuated. Due to a catastrophic event — according to Augustine, it involved a mistake — our planet is becoming inhabitable at a rapid rate. The ground is sinking, extreme weather is running rampant, and the air is toxic. Even worse: there's a crew of astronauts (led by Felicity Jones' Sully and David Oyelowo's Adewale) returning to Earth shortly with zero clue of its destination's deadly spiral.
Clooney's new film, "The Midnight Sky," is a tale of two cities, plot-wise. A touching adventure film that shows Clooney wearing three different hats: director, producer and star. Talk about a timely film with a soulful kick. The Netflix Original (I bet Clooney and Alfonso Cuaron shared some notes) is a wild concoction with flavorings from "Interstellar", "The Martian" and "Gravity", the Sandra Bullock Oscar-nominated space opus that co-starred the seasoned actor. While both Augustine and Matt Kowalski (Clooney's lively character in Cuaron's "Gravity") both look to the sky in different ways, their temperaments and moods draw a dark difference between them.
Augustine's sadness is interrupted by the presence of a young girl (Caoillin Springall), who may have been accidentally left behind during the evacuation that opens the film. A man deciding to die alone while everyone else flees carries a signature blend of misery, but the girl — and the mission of redirecting the astronauts' projection — thaws some of the debris away from his soul, cracking the foundation of his self-torment (the details of which we slowly are informed of, via flashback).
If you don't understand how good of an actor Clooney has become, you're missing a very good time at the movies. Think about the two space-related characters that I listed above: Augustine and Kowalski. They couldn't be more different. Wired and calibrated on opposite continents of human evolution, the only peace these two men share is their acceptance of the end and its vast approaching location. The personalities are polar opposites, one sharing the wit and charm of a veteran while the other only stares at what he didn't accomplish.
Clooney handles each shade like a pro, sinking his swagger into one but his teeth completely into Augustine. The most compelling portions of this film reside around Clooney and Springall's journey across dangerous terrains to contact the spacecraft at a new substation. "The Midnight Sky" shows another layer of Clooney's arsenal of tricks, this one carrying shades of fatherhood, the reason the actor has been missing from movie screens these past few years.
He convincingly syncs up with Augustine's quiet rage, a heart bruised by ego and doubt. A man so sure of his future that he doesn't mind having nightmares about the past. I was really moved by this man and his plight, the events of which we don't require every single detail to understand. It's all in Clooney's face, and there's a little mystery as to what those eyes know and have seen. This is his movie, an isolated spectacle that touches the brain and the heart equally in its two-hour run time.
Here's the thing. "The Midnight Sky" may be Clooney's finest achievement as an actor and filmmaker. Seriously. What he accomplishes here connects passionately on a large scale and far more intimate stage. While "Good Night, Good Luck" and "Ides of March" stung hard with their writing and ensemble acting, this new film takes those parts and dials up the crowd-pleasing considerably without sacrificing the more heartbreaking aspects of the film's deeper beats.
Some have called this film "too sad," but any scientist will tell you this film's reality is not foreign to our real life future. Global warming is still our deadliest threat, a circumstance that preys on our stubbornness and neglect, a level of villainy that a president can never collect. I don't need to go to the films to feel good about myself or my world all the time. Sometimes, a good tale of mad sorrow can create an illuminating film, one that makes you look both at the mirror and up to the sky.
The rest of the cast is rock solid. You won't read these names on award mantles next year, but it's still good work. Jones is such an accomplished actress that Sully seems like an easy jog for her at first, but she enhances this astronaut's story as the film progresses, and the mission of the spacecraft becomes just as dire as Augustine's struggle on the ground.
Oyelowo is equally capable as the captain of Ether, the spacecraft searching for home in the dark, even if it's not the place they remember. Like Jones, Oyelowo is an award-nominated high class talent who can do this work in his sleep, but like he did with Tom Cruise in "Jack Reacher," Oyelowo makes every minute count. Great actors don't need a ton of dialogue.
Just ask Demian Bichir, who has a very nice moment late in the film that really adds a layer of power and intrigue to Clooney's film. Springall's debut is a nice one, forming a bond with Clooney's unlikely protagonist. Tiffany Boone has a very well-acted and terrifying scene. They all dig at Mark L. Smith's script — which was adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton's book — finding some juice in later scenes that only make the first hour of the film hit harder.
Fact: This film will divide critics and people. Some will love it, and others will think it's another misfire from Clooney. Some will get the full wallop of the ending, and others may retrace their paths with a second viewing.
For a film dealing with people running around just to stand still, "The Midnight Sky" is more complex than one would assume from the trailer. There are details, both immediate and others simmering for a later reveal, that make the overall story punch harder. I expected that going in, even predicting a particular plot twist, but that didn't hinder my enjoyment of the film.
Don't sleep on the action either. Along with breathtaking cinematography from Martin Ruhe and a spellbinding yet versatile score from Alexander Desplat (a Clooney film vet), "The Midnight Sky" dazzles you with its more kinetic moments. This is where you learn to appreciate the scope of the film, whether it's a thrilling search in the painfully cold blowing snow in the Arctic wilderness or a meteor shower on the spacecraft. The violence and bad times that each set of characters runs into never feels undercooked or overlooked. Clooney knows how to mix blockbuster and soul-searching into the same pan.
The film is a marvel on the technical side. From the exoskeleton-type design of the spacecraft to the futuristic touches in medical and computer enhancement, Clooney paints a highly functional odyssey of hopeful sadness. The outside terrain provides plenty of torment for Augustine and his young companion, placing the audience right in the thick of the Iceland blizzard/wind hybrid. We feel it all, and are sucked into the story.
I had high hopes for Clooney's big bang return to moviemaking and left satisfied. I don't know about the Academy Awards hopes tied to this film just yet, but it's a very good film that only lands better with more thought and introspection. While Netflix is highly ambitious and shoots for the Oscar stars this time of year, they also love making a film that can please and jolt you while delivering a timely message.
It may not hit for everybody, but it sure did for me. I prefer a batch of entertainment that can blend hope, sadness, despair and redemption. I got what Clooney was going for and wanted more time with these noble characters trying to survive in desolate times. It's where science fiction and drama meet comfortably.
Also, keep a lookout for Clooney's ode to one of his failed directorial efforts, and a nice yet short tribute to previous space films, especially the ones that dealt with creatures. He pays his respects with this new addition.
Bottom Line: "The Midnight Sky" stands as a multi-faceted achievement for Clooney, reminding people that the smooth-talking movie star is a highly capable actor and filmmaker — one that can work on the large and small scale, even at the same time.
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