George Clooney has been in two of the great Hollywood sci-fi films of the 21st century. Steven Soderbergh's daring remake of Solaris came in 2002, followed by 2013's brilliant Gravity, a film that truly blasts viewers into space with its stomach-flipping camera work.
As David Oyelowo, Clooney's co-star in his new Netflix-backed post-apocalyptic film, The Midnight Sky, claims: "George is basically to space movies what De Niro is to gangster movies."
However, after two trips beyond the stratosphere, Clooney has stayed put on Earth here. In The Midnight Sky, he plays Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist living alone in an observatory in the Arctic Circle after the planet suffered a major environmental catastrophe.
Working to locate habitable planets where humanity could relocate, Lofthouse is left with the fading memories of his past (flashbacks to his youth are frequent, with Augustine played by Ethan Peck). He's like Matt Damon in The Martian, if Damon's character had stayed on Mars and become depressed.
Up in space, meanwhile, the Aether spacecraft has been scoping out a new planet, K-23, for possible habitation, a plot-line that immediately recalls Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.
With the mission led by Adewole (Oyelowo), the tight-knit crew includes pilot Tom (Kyle Chandler), navigation specialist Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone). Also on board is the pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), the astronaut who first contacts Augustine over the airwaves and brings the story’s two parallel strands together.
There's plenty to celebrate about The Midnight Sky – not least a hugely talented and diverse cast that rather echoes Away, the recent Netflix limited series starring Hilary Swank which set out to show us the psychological distress of blasting off into space. Clooney's film is a little different; it aims high for big action set pieces, grapples with big questions and plays with emotive themes about ecological disaster that hang permanently over the film like a worried frown.
Adapted from the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the film has taken on even greater meaning in the wake of Covid-19, Clooney told a press conference earlier this month.
“After we finished shooting, the pandemic came around. And it became clear that what the story really was enveloping was our desperate need to be home and our desperate need to be close and in communication with the people we love.”
Or, as Jones puts it: “We thought we were making entertainment. And now we’re making documentary.”
It's arguably a feeling many people will relate to after the events of 2020. The Midnight Sky doesn't touch Clooney's space odysseys Solaris and Gravity, nor does it compare to the best films he's directed, Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March.
Still, the set pieces are supremely executed – notably a claustrophobic sequence in the snowy wastes of the Arctic that takes place on and below the ice. Up above, you get the obligatory spacewalk sequence, as characters venture outside the craft for vital repairs.
The film is scripted by Mark L Smith, who wrote The Revenant – a masterpiece set in the rawness of the Great Outdoors that recalls the Arctic section somewhat. But The Midnight Sky shouldn't be thought of as an action-thriller; rather, it's a melancholy study of regret, loneliness and the impact of global catastrophe. As Mexican-born Oscar nominee Bichir notes: "It's as if Mother Nature has told us, 'Go to your room and don't get out until you think about what you did.'"
At one point Augustine discovers a mute girl – played by newcomer Caoilinn Springall, who was just 6 when she shot the film – hiding out in his research facility. Theirs becomes a touching relationship, together eating a grim-looking vacuum-packed dinner of peas in silence like some latter-day Charlie Chaplin film. Who is she? A symbol of hope or redemption for Augustine, maybe, as he reflects on a lifetime of decisions he has come to question.
Clooney, who offers his most restrained performance since his Oscar-winning turn in Syriana, calls it "a very hopeful film", a message that might just resonate after the awfulness of 2020.
Jones was pregnant in real life when she made the film, he adds, a fact that caused a change in her character’s situation.
“When Felicity stands up and she is clearly pregnant ... you get the sense of a continuum, you get a sense that we’re going to be OK,” says Clooney. “We may not all get out of this alive, but we’ll get out of it intact.”
Jones's Sully isn't Ripley from Alien, Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone in Gravity or even Jyn Erso, the sacrificial heroine she played in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One. Her pregnancy doesn't quite allow her the broad action strokes – but she stands as a beacon of hope in a film that, as Clooney notes, ponders "the idea of whether or not this whole thing of mankind is worth the struggle".
In truth, The Midnight Sky needed some greater finessing in the editing suite. The two plot strands running in tandem have trouble finding connective tissue. Clooney's decision to dub his voice over Ethan Peck – his character's younger self – is bizarre. And the emotional twists are either all too guessable or not that credible.
And yet, with Clooney tackling his biggest scale film to date, The Midnight Sky smacks of ambition, reaching for the stars if never quite touching them.
The Midnight Sky is on Netflix from Wednesday, December 23