There’s no escaping the fact that superhero movies have become Hollywood’s blockbuster du jour—even the Fast & Furious franchise has essentially turned its characters into indestructible, physics-defying heroes who just so happen to drive muscle cars. But in the face of so much spandex, major studios have still carved out some space for journeys to the cosmos and speculative science-fiction. According to my (half-assed) calculations, the annual tradition of a serious space-based or sci-fi movie from a serious filmmaker has been going strong for nearly a decade.
The annual “serious director, serious space and/or sci-fi movie” trend began in 2012 with Prometheus (Ridley Scott), followed by Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan), The Martian (Scott again, flexing on us), Arrival (Denis Villeneuve; no scenes in space, but bizarre-looking aliens play charades with Amy Adams), Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve again, playing around in Scott’s gloomy sandbox), First Man (Damien Chazelle; not science-fiction but a biopic about the original spaceman counts), and last year, Ad Astra (James Gray). This doesn’t even include thoughtful, small-scale science-fiction efforts from auteurs like Spike Jonze (2013’s Her) or Claire Denis (2019’s High Life), both of which question what it really means to be human. (I also chose to omit J.J. Abrams’s 2011 film Super 8—he’s not a serious filmmaker.)
Captain Lens Flare aside, these movies are widely regarded as, if not a director’s best work, then a significant artistic achievement. Chazelle, who’s usually way too into jazz, made one of the saddest and most insular blockbusters of the past decade, showing a man who would rather go to the Moon than talk about his feelings; Cuarón proved that his mastery of tracking shots could be taken to breathtaking new heights in zero gravity; and I’ll always go to bat for Interstellar as Nolan’s most ambitious, rewarding, and emotionally resonant work. Every auteur worth a damn—Barry Jenkins; Nicolas Winding Refn; Lynne Ramsay; Steve McQueen, what’s up—should try their hand at a sci-fi movie. It’s a win-win-win: A filmmaker gets to expand their horizons, the studios typically get to profit with a sizable box office total or the potential for Oscars, and nerds who prefer spaceships to superheroes (read: me and my colleague Michael Baumann) get something new each year.
This year, though, it seemed that this new tradition (that may or may not exist only in my head) was at the risk of ending after eight strong years. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the potential demise of movie theaters, so too has it jeopardized the annual serious space movie from a serious filmmaker (we’ll need to workshop a catchier shorthand). Instead of savoring Villeneuve going for a threepeat with the weighty sci-fi epic Dune, we have to wait until 2021 and, depending on how the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine goes, potentially be forced to watch it from the safety of our living rooms.
But just as Netflix gave superhero enthusiasts their blockbuster fix this summer (The Old Guard, Project Power), the streamer has delivered on the serious sci-fi front in the nick of time. On Wednesday, Netflix released The Midnight Sky, the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, which also sees the A-lister pull double-duty with his first starring role in a feature film for four years. Based on the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel Good Morning, Midnight, the movie takes place in the year 2049—no relation to the Blade Runner sequel—as a vaguely alluded to cataclysmic event has made the Earth toxic and uninhabitable, putting mankind on the brink of extinction. There, the incredibly named Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), a scientist with terminal cancer, spends his final days on a remote Arctic outpost with Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a mute little girl who was inadvertently left behind by the station’s evacuees.
Meanwhile, a mission to one of Jupiter’s moons—where it was discovered that the area is habitable—is heading back to Earth, with the astronauts unaware of the dangers they face if they try to land. Since the satellite at Augustine’s station isn’t strong enough to reach the ship, he and Iris make an arduous trek to an outpost with a stronger signal in order to—and this isn’t hyperbole—ensure the survival of the human race. As far as the utter seriousness of Clooney’s sci-fi movie goes, um, mission accomplished.
Dividing its time between Lofthouse and the five-person crew in space, The Midnight Sky is basically two movies in one: a postapocalyptic survival drama, and an astronaut adventure that will be familiar territory for anyone who’s sat through the aforementioned films of the past decade. The biggest issue with The Midnight Sky is, in fact, how much it feels like a facsimile of so many better films that came before it. Lofthouse, looking like a retired deep-sea fisherman who makes his own seal jerky, could mark an exciting new era for Clooney, where he trades his traditional leading-man good looks for more rugged characters. (Assuming Clooney hasn’t made the full pivot to Wife Guy.) But the character’s near-wordless journey through unforgiving terrain is well-worn material; the fact that The Midnight Sky is written by the co-screenwriter of The Revenant (Mark L. Smith) basically makes it self-plagiarism.
Things aren’t much better when the action leaves Earth. The film’s space sequences, while boasting some undeniably impressive visual effects, split the difference between The Martian (clever astronauts problem-solving to save their lives) and Gravity (the ship getting struck by meteors with the chaos that ensues) without the same level of satisfaction because, well, we’ve seen it all before in the hands of more experienced directors. The Midnight Sky seems like it was generated by an algorithm that was fed all the previous entries in the serious sci-fi movie from a serious filmmaker (SSFMFSF?) canon and asked to make a movie.
With respect to Clooney, his intermittent stints at directing simply don’t hold a candle to his magnetism and natural charisma as a movie star. (Speaking of Gravity, remember how good he was in that?) The only area where The Midnight Sky feels novel is in its prescient future of Earth—enough is implied that we were the architects of our own destruction, presumably instigated by climate change—and the eerie sight of Lofthouse venturing outdoors with a mask so he can survive another day. But just like his previous directorial effort, Suburbicon, where Clooney tried to ape the black comedy of the Coen brothers to diminishing returns, The Midnight Sky is an unfortunate reminder that there are bigger, bolder, and better sci-fi movies from bigger, bolder, and better directors.
The Midnight Sky has technically ensured that the serious sci-fi movie from a serious filmmaker streak will continue. But the film’s shortcomings are also very on-brand for a 2020 release: Even an annual treat for space nerds turned out to be a letdown. Let’s hope that Timothée Chalamet and giant sand buttholes bring more promise in 2021.