THE PLOT A scientist must prevent a crew of astronauts from returning to a doomed Earth.
THE CAST George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo
RATED PG-13 (bloodshed and brief gore)
WHERE In theaters now; on Netflix Dec. 23
BOTTOM LINE Clooney’s space drama looks lovely but lacks drama and tension.
All is lost within the first few minutes of "The Midnight Sky," featuring George Clooney as scientist Augustine Lofthouse. Not only is he terminally ill, he’s essentially the sole survivor on a post-apocalypse Earth. Holed up in his Arctic Circle headquarters, Augustine has one goal: to convince the returning spacecraft Aether to hang a U-ie and find a habitable planet.
"The Midnight Sky" is the latest in a string of un-fun space movies to arrive in theaters (and in this case, Netflix). Its closest cousin is "Interstellar," Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film about humanity’s search for a new home, but it also shares a somber, weighty tone with James Gray’s "Ad Astra," from last year, and "First Man," Damien Chazelle’s emotionless ode to Neil Armstrong. Add those movies together and throw in "Lucy in the Sky," with Natalie Portman as an astronaut spiraling into mental illness, and space travel is starting to seem like a bad trip.
Though ably directed by Clooney, "The Midnight Sky" adds to this trend without bringing much new to the table. It’s predicated on the old chestnut of the nuclear holocaust (suggested but never really explained) and echoes many other sci-fi films, from the eco-fable "Silent Running" to the survivalist saga "The Martian." Aesthetically, it resembles "Gravity," which also featured not only Clooney but visual effects supervisor Matt Kasmir. None of this might have mattered, however, if only Mark L. Smith's screenplay (adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel) made us care about its characters.
The Aether crew consists of family man Mitchell (Kyle Chandler); the friendly Sanchez (Demian Bichir); the rookie Maya (Tiffany Boone); capable Sully (Felicity Jones), who is pregnant; and Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo), who is the father. We barely get to know them; the last two don’t even seem like a couple. They rarely express any kind of affection, and they touch each other exactly once. This might be the result of a mid-production rewrite: The character became pregnant only when the actress did, after filming had begun.
As the film toggles between Augustine, who discovers the existence of an abandoned little girl (Caoilinn Springall as Iris), and the imperiled crew of the Aether, we find ourselves in a dramatic vacuum. With no tension between any of the characters, "The Midnight Sky" must resort to sudden events — oh no, a meteor shower! — to create excitement. The novelty wears off well before the two-hour-plus running time is over.
The movie makes one last attempt to liven things up with an emotional revelation that is just another cliche. In fact, you’ll see it coming miles — make that light-years — away.