Not every actor who tries his or her hand at directing has the chops to be a true filmmaker; in fact, very few do. But George Clooney, in the early 2000s, took to directing as if born to it. His first effort, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002), had an early Charlie Kaufman script that Clooney staged with attitude and style, getting the audience to buy into a gonzo what-if? biopic of Chuck Barris. Clooney’s sophomore effort, “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), vividly dramatized the war between the TV newsman Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, with Clooney using the black-and-white cinematography to make the 1950s broadcast-news world (and everyone in it) pop. “The Ides of March” (2011) caught the postmodern cynicism of our greedy and gridlocked political culture.
Then Clooney made “The Monuments Men” (2014), and he fell off a cliff. A World War II combat heist thriller about art that was stolen by the Nazis, it had a strong subject and a star cast, but it was a weirdly skewed movie that just sat there, as if Clooney’s creative motor had stalled. Every filmmaker is entitled to a dud, of course, and I thought Clooney bounced halfway back with “Suburbicon” (2017), an acerbic thriller set in a “Mad Men”-meets-Coen-brothers Middle America. But in “The Midnight Sky,” Clooney lands in another ditch. He’s working on a bigger scale than he’s tried for, and he stages some exciting visual-effects sequences; Alexandre Desplat’s score blankets the action in a mournful grandeur. The sheer vastness of the film — especially its outer-space scenes — may fill a movie-spectacle void left by COVID. Even the silences (and there are many) have a prestige air about them, making “The Midnight Sky” an awards contender almost before it’s a movie.
Yet I watched it wondering, “Why did George Clooney want to make this movie?” His early films had dash and spirit and verve. Like Clooney himself, they were alive with personality. This one is sodden with self-importance. Unfolding in one of those distant futures that’s just like the present except more glum, “The Midnight Sky” cuts back and forth between two settings: the frozen wilderness of Antarctica, where Clooney plays the sole researcher left at the empty, sprawling Barbeau Observatory; and a NASA spaceship named the Aether that looks from the outside like a baroque Christmas ornament as shot by Stanley Kubrick, and on the inside houses a crew of researcher-explorers on a mission that, at this point, seems overly familiar and derivative of other movies. Each setting has a way of being less gripping than the one the film has just cut away from.
Adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 sci-fi novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” “The Midnight Sky” is a dystopian fairy tale for adults, one of those movies in which Earth as we know it has basically ended and we’re asked to invest ourselves in the lives of half a dozen survivors. It may be that this genre, as I’ve long suspected, is rather played out. But even if not, “The Midnight Sky” is a ponderous movie. It doesn’t pretend to be “fun,” but it’s not like it’s about much of anything either, unless you count the idea that every homegrown-apocalypse film is a Deadly Serious Warning about our ecological self-destruction. I take climate change as seriously as the next non-Republican, but come on! We’ve been getting this lecture from Hollywood since “Waterworld.”
You know what you’re in for in the opening minutes, where Clooney, playing a man named Augustine, is all alone, like Matt Damon in “The Martian” or the boyhood Ebenezer Scrooge left behind for the holidays at boarding school. There are artfully austere shots of the empty science compound, and then Clooney, looking like someone suffering a bout of clinical depression, skulks into the cafeteria, pulls out his chair and sits, and pokes into his tray of microwaved rations. (There are few things in movies more joyless than watching someone eat who doesn’t look hungry.)
Wearing a grayish-white beard and thatchy close-cropped hair, with a girth semi-covered by a flannel shirt, Clooney looks like Santa Claus’s morose philosophical cousin (Kierkegaard Claus?). It’s as if the actor had decided, in a bit of overly-thought-out modesty, that he knows he can’t play the grinning frictionless leading-man charmer forever, and so he went too far in the other direction, hollowing himself out, playing Augustine as a sickly stick. The character is, in fact, suffering from cancer and has to keep giving himself transfusions and chemo pills. It’s the illness that has led him to stay behind, after the observatory was abandoned by the researchers who work there. (Early on, we see them walking in a line like refugees and being ferried away by helicopter).
They’ve left because they’re trying to save themselves in the wake of “the event,” the term the movie uses for an undescribed catastrophe that has brought life on earth to its knees. It appears to involve radiation, but that’s as specific as it gets. It’s the end of the world as we know it as Metaphor.
Augustine thinks he’ll have a better chance of surviving on his own. But as we discover, he’s not on his own. There’s a stowaway in the observatory, a girl who becomes his companion. Caoilinn Springall, the 7-year-old actress who makes her debut here, has a vibrant quizzicality reminiscent of the young Anna Paquin’s, but the character, as presented, doesn’t talk. (She’s not physically mute; she has just…decided not to talk.) She does things like draw a picture of a flower to tell Augustine her name (Iris!), and engages him in a dinner game of pea hockey. It’s all very cute, very pro forma lost-girl-meets-father-figure-savior, and not very interesting.
Meanwhile, in space, the Aether is returning from a voyage to K-23, the formerly hidden moon of Jupiter the ship’s crew had been exploring as a possible alternative to Earth. That story point echoes the premise of “Ad Astra,” except in this case there’s a weird fuzziness to it: After “the event,” the people on Earth really do need a place to go — but the Aether began its voyage long before. Coincidence or sloppy plotting?
The ship’s crew members are an appealing enough bunch — or, at least, the actors are. But there’s not much to the characters they’re playing. Felicity Jones is all perky radiance as the resourceful Sully, and David Oyelowo gets to show off his wit as the Commander, Tom Adewole. These two are a couple who are getting ready to have a child (a daughter), and there’s a running joke about the other crew members all trying to think of names for her. Demián Bichir is underused as the overly jovial Sanchez, but it’s Tiffany Boone, as Maya, who anchors the film’s one blow-you-away sequence: a group space walk undertaken to repair a faulty transmitter. We’ve been seeing this sort of thing since “2001,” but Clooney mounts his own heart-in-the-throat variation on it. As the astronauts inch their way along metal bannisters, everything outside the ship is so serene that we keep waiting for the other moon boot to drop. And it does, but not in the way you expect. Suffice to say that Clooney does with blood what “Gravity” did with tears.
Yet “Gravity,” an obvious influence here, was an enthralling movie from first shot to last. “The Midnight Sky” has a generically functional motor. What links the film’s two settings is that Augustine is trying to get in contact with the Aether (he and Iris have to trek through the blizzardy wilderness to a weather station before he can do it), and the Aether crew members need to hear about what’s happening on Earth. It’s like playing connect the dots with two dots. “The Midnight Sky” wants to touch us on a human level — its vision of Augustine (who is seen in flashback when he was a young celebrity scientist) as an overly isolated soul; the film’s dream of saving the world by finding a place for its inhabitants. Some viewers will surely be moved. To me, though, “The Midnight Sky” just proves that a movie that reaches for the stars can still come up empty-handed.