It felt like we hadn’t seen George Clooney on screen for years before The Midnight Sky. His previous role, in 2016’s Money Monster, didn’t make much of a splash in the grand scheme of things, and it felt like one of Hollywood’s most recognisable faces was pulling himself away from the spotlight. It makes me wonder, then, why this was the project he chose to make his cinema return after four years, a film with commendable ambition that never manages to escape the shadows of the infinite number of sci-fi films that inspired it.

Adapted from the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, The Midnight Sky follows self-isolating super scientist, Augustine (Clooney), operating out of a recently evacuated Arctic base. Having discovered a new, habitable planet he has dubbed K-23, Augustine tracks the K-23 exploration mission from the safety of the Arctic circle after a mysterious event has rendered most of the Earth covered in toxic radiation. In space, pregnant communications specialist Sully (Felicity Jones) tries to contact Earth on their return journey, the fate of the Earth unknown to her and the rest of the ship’s crew. At home, Augustine discovers a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) accidentally abandoned at the base that was evacuated weeks prior who Augustine must protect, as their mission forces them out of the relative safety of their Arctic base.

The Midnight Sky aims high with its story, but the plot is so needlessly convoluted from minute one that it’s fighting a losing battle from the get-go. It throws a lot of stuff at the wall just to see what sticks, and sadly a lot of it slides off after a promisingly sticky start. For instance, the mysterious cataclysmic events remains just that, a mystery; just when you think you might get some explanation as to what happened, The Midnight Sky deploys that never-annoying-at-all tactic of revealing it over a phone call with the worst signal (a problem I couldn’t help but feel should’ve been sorted by the year 2049). Yes, one could argue the reason for the Earth’s destruction is futile, this is just the environment Augustine is stuck with now and it cannot be reversed, hence the decision to scope out K-23. But it’s a clear case of cinematic blue-balling to not at least hint towards the reason for the destruction, given it’s so relevant to why Augustine finds himself alone at the base.

Furthermore, with all its moving parts tracking Clooney at his Arctic base and Jones on her ship, more time is given still to a series of flashbacks with a much younger Augustine (played with impressive vocal accuracy by Ethan Peck) and his now estranged wife, Jean (Sophie Rundle). To call these sequences ponderous would be too kind, as their soap operatic, melodramatic couple arguments bring any plot momentum to a grinding halt. Any spark they had in their relationship is left behind, only ever showing them at their respective worst and you spend most of the time in the flashbacks wondering why they ever got together in the first place. Plot momentum, or lack thereof, is one of The Midnight Sky’s multitude of issues, which is a shame, because there was a time when the film threatened to be good.

After a ponderous and cumbersome first hour, Clooney and his script writer, Mark L Smith (who most notably co-wrote The Revenant), inject a bit of a spark into their film with a sequence that so evidently apes Gravity – in which Clooney also appeared – but it’s the one scene of the film that gives our space crew a bit of energy and life. Behind the camera, too, after a frustratingly static first half, Clooney’s camera floats around his performers in zero G with a delightful sense of freedom that was so sorely missing from the first half of the film. Here, I found I was genuinely having fun watching the sequence unfold. Even when the inevitable and predictable disaster strikes, I wasn’t too put off by it, as it was executed well, and a surprise moment in the immediate aftermath of the disaster elicits a gasp of real shock. I wouldn’t say this sequence is worth the price of admission (see: your Netflix subscription), but it’s the film’s highlight by a clear distance.

Clooney and Jones bear the brunt of the film’s more emotional stakes as it aims for something resembling moving, but sadly barely registers on the emotion scale. Jones is just having a good time, floating through the zero gravity corridors of the impressively designed ship interiors, but her moment in the spotlight in the film’s final key moments feels too cold and calculated, disconnected from the warmth her character has portrayed in the rest of the film. Clooney, meanwhile, is cold throughout (both literally and emotionally), and his moment in the spotlight is one of the more heavily foreshadowed moments in recent years. I spent the majority of the film hoping it wouldn’t go in the direction it does, but not only does it go in that direction, it careens towards it at hyper speed as the film enters its final act.

Strange then, that having been so static for so long, The Midnight Sky crams all of its emotional stakes in a rapid-fire final fifteen minutes. In this sequence, we get three heartfelt monologues from different characters, two of which are in sequential scenes, revealing stakes we didn’t even know they had until that point. It feels so maddeningly rushed, that any emotion that is  coursing through the veins at the time (coming shortly after the gasp-inducing moment) is ejected from the body with startling ease. Still, some remnants of feeling may be left after the slightly heartstring-tugging score by Alexandre Desplat, which is eclectic and quite beautiful, a score which injects life into the film’s more boring sequences.

The Midnight Sky doesn’t have the execution to match its shoot-for-the-stars ambition. It lacks the plot momentum required to propel us through its three separate story strands until it’s too late, it is nice seeing Clooney back in front of the camera but his Augustine is too vapid to successfully connect with the audience; Jones is having a lot of fun up in space but I couldn’t help but wonder if the space stuff should’ve been the whole film rather than just a third of it, and the less said about the flashback sequences the better, despite Ethan Peck’s satisfying Clooney impression. If only the rest of the film had the same vigour as that one Gravity section. A frustrating and lethargic missed opportunity.

Rating: ★★

The Midnight Sky is on Netflix from December 23 2020.