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Movie review: ‘The Midnight Sky’ reaches for the stars but doesn’t fully get off the ground

Ed Symkus
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Augustine (George Clooney) and Iris (Caoilinn Springall) keep watching the skies.

There’s plenty to recommend about “The Midnight Sky,” the film adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s spare and elegant 2016 science fiction novel “Good Morning, Midnight.”

George Clooney, who stars and directs, turns in a thoughtful, mostly interior performance, relying more on the camera to translate his thoughts than on his voice saying them. Seven-year-old newcomer Caoilinn Springall faces - and delivers on - an even greater challenge: Though she’s onscreen for a major portion of the film, she has only one line of dialogue. He is Augustine, an aging and ailing astronomer who has chosen to remain at an Arctic Circle observatory after an “event” somewhere causes everyone else stationed there to board helicopters and return home. She is the little girl he later finds there, who he believes was accidentally left behind. But no one responds to his radio calls. That duo takes up about half of the film’s two-hour running time.

In a different but parallel story, the tight ensemble cast of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, and Kyle Chandler, are the crew of the spacecraft Aether, returning home from an exploratory mission to Jupiter. They all play off of each other in great balance and, when called for, counter-balance. They don’t know of any problems on Earth, but just like Augustine’s situation, no one is returning their radio calls.

There’s also a lot to quibble about, especially if you’re a fan of the novel. Yes, I know that the book is the book, and the movie is the movie (Yes, I am a fan of the novel.). But adapter Mark L. Smith, for reasons that make little sense to me, left out some notable elements, added some insignificant ones, and ludicrously changed up one storyline.

I’ll address that last part, fully believing it’s not a spoiler of any consequence. The book features a diverse crew, in both gender and ethnicity. So does the film. In the book, one of the women might be attracted to one of the men, and the feeling might be mutual. It’s a small mystery that propels the plot and creates subtle sexual tension. In the film, she’s already pregnant, and her partner is revealed early on. No tension. It would be best not to get me started on the extra special layer of “racial parity” with the deletion of a white male character. That did nothing but cut back on the casting budget.

The year is 2049. No one knows what the “event” was, just that communications have been wiped out. Grizzled Augustine, dependent on transfusions to stay alive, and whiskey to stay sane, initially isn’t happy to see he has silent company. She’ll nod yes or no to his questions but he only gets that her name is Iris when she draws a flower for him. Sporadic flashbacks show him as a young man (played by Ethan Peck, but still voiced by Clooney), popular with women and respected by the scientific community, and allude to errant ways that have turned him into a loner. He knows Earth is a lost cause, but is aware of the returning crew, and keeps trying to contact them. Way out in space, the captain and crew on Aether keep wondering why it’s so quiet on the planet.

The film’s mood is mostly contemplative, sometimes bordering on depressing. To break that up, there’s harsh, unforgiving weather during a snowmobile journey at the observatory, and peril outside of Aether when a spacewalk is required after space debris damage. There are also light moments when Augustine and Iris begin to warm to each other, and when crew members enjoy a version of a “Star Trek”-like Holodeck.

When communication is finally achieved, and Augustine explains what he knows of conditions on Earth, all he can say is, “I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away.” As they approach the planet, all the crew can do is wonder about what to do.

It’s an interesting pair of juxtaposed situations, but despite excellent production design and zero-gravity scenes, even with strong acting and sturdy direction, the film kind of dithers, and never achieves liftoff.

“The Midnight Sky” premieres on Netflix on Dec. 23.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“The Midnight Sky”

Written by Mark L. Smith; directed by George Clooney

With George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demian Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall

Rated PG-13