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The Midnight Sky review – Arctic sci-fi hampered by glacial pacing

George Clooney's first movie appearance in almost five years ends up as a long walk to nowhere, baffling and boring in equal measure

It’s been nearly five years since we last saw George Clooney in a movie, with his only interim on-screen appearance being in the TV adaptation of Catch-22 – a very long time to go without one of Hollywood’s great Movie Stars. Sadly, The Midnight Sky, in which he also takes the directorial reins, is a very disappointing reunion, getting some decent work out of Clooney the actor but a failure on multiple levels for Clooney the director, landing far closer to the lows of Suburbicon than the highs of, say, Good Night and Good Luck.

Adapting the acclaimed novel Good Morning, Midnight, The Midnight Sky finds Clooney isolated deep in the Arctic circle as Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist with a highfalutin name and the beard to match. It’s 2049, and an unnamed catastrophe has killed off almost all life on earth, while the radioactive fallout slowly makes its way to Augustine’s outpost. Terminally ill, Augustine resigns himself to a lonely death as quite possibly the last human on the planet, but two complications force him to rethink his decision. The first is the discovery of Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a young girl seemingly left behind at the base when it was evacuated, and the second is a returning spaceflight that isn’t aware it’s coming back to the apocalypse.

This flight is The Aether, a colonial mission returning to give the good news that the crew has found an inhabitable planet to replace Earth, so Augustine needs to trek across the frozen wastes with Iris in time to reach a powerful antenna that will allow him to broadcast a warning to the ship. We spend roughly equal time with Augustine as with The Aether’s crew, led by genius commander Tom Adewole (David Oyelowo) and comms expert Sully (Felicity Jones), and it's in this choice where most of The Midnight Sky’s problems lie.

Fittingly for an arctic adventure, the pacing here is glacial, and the split narrative only hammers home how slow everything feels. As soon as you get immersed in either Augustine’s journey or The Aether’s navigation through uncharted space, you’re chucked back into the other plot, sapping excitement and tension until you’re just going through the motions. The Midnight Sky wears its many influences on its sleeve – Gravity, The Martian, The Revenant (with which it shares a writer in Mark L. Smith) – but is too boring to ever live up to any of them.

Clooney gives a solidly gruff and melancholy performance, and manages to muster one moment of genuine movie magic as The Aether’s crew do a spacewalk set to “Sweet Caroline.” But The Midnight Sky is a long walk to nowhere, and a tonally confused one at that. It’s never quite sure how dark it wants to be, and this indecision makes for a truly bizarre ending. To be fair, sticking the landing on a story that starts with total human extinction is always going to be tough, but there are surely better solutions than some sub-Shyamalan twists and one of the most awkward fade-to-blacks in recent memory.

It’s a crying shame, because there is clear potential here. Augustine’s journey has some beautiful photography behind it, with vast open skies that seem to somehow shine brighter at night, and more focus on his quest to save both Iris and The Aether would have likely made for a far more compelling film. As it stands though, The Midnight Sky is a major blemish on what has otherwise been a stellar year for Netflix films and, coupled with Suburbicon, perhaps a sign that Clooney is better served in front of the camera than behind it.

The Midnight Sky is in cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from 23 December.

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