★★★★ out of 5 -- Rated: PG-13 -- Run time: 2 hours, 2 minutes (Opens Dec. 23 in select theatres and on Netflix streaming)
George Clooney is no stranger to movies that have an outer space theme: He starred in 2002′s “Solaris” and had a much smaller -- although highly-important -- role in Sandra Bullock’s 2013 hit, “Gravity.”
The 59-year old actor/filmmaker now returns to that genre with the seventh movie he’s chosen to direct: “The Midnight Sky,” which is based on the novel, “Good Morning, Midnight.”
Clooney does double-duty, also starring as “Augustine,” a gifted astronomer (with a very impressive beard) living in the not-too-distant future at a remote Arctic research station.
A never-fully explained disaster has struck the earth, making it uninhabitable to nearly everyone. Augustine has chosen to remain at the base while the other inhabitants evacuate, a decision made somewhat easier because he’s suffering from a disease that is draining his body.
He gets a major surprise when he discovers a young girl is also sharing the vacated base. She’s played by Irish actress Caoilinn Springall, who was only 6 years old when the movie was made. She got the role over her sister, who also auditioned for the same part, but Clooney was understandably impressed with her wonderful eye and facial expressions -- a huge plus for a character who only says a few words in the entire film.
The script by Mark L. Smith (”The Revenant’) smoothly transitions back and forth between the other key part of the story -- a spaceship that is returning to earth after a lengthy research mission, unaware of the drastic danger that awaits them back home.
The crew of the “Aether” features David Oyelowo (“Selma”) as the even-keeled commander as well as Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone and Demian Bichir.
One particular stand-out -- and a big focus of the film -- is Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) as “Sully,” a pregnant astronaut who is very can-do with everything she attempts. She’s the emotional center of the group.
Thankfully, all the crew members are portrayed as professionals, and the script doesn’t resort to the easy path of creating and exploiting personal rivalries of the crew in order to manufacture drama.
Clooney has made the danger-in-space sequences very effective. A couple of scenes in which the massive spaceship is struck by objects are reminiscent of the big early scene in “Gravity,” and Clooney learned well from that experience, overcoming the visual effects challenges from that movie. A space-walk sequence with the two female astronauts is particularly edge-of-the seat material.
Although the big space scenes are attention-grabbing, (as are the scenes of Augustine and the young girl crossing the dangerous Arctic landscape), Clooney also delivers some nice emotional moments, whether it’s the crew singing along to a Neil Diamond song, or his character and the young girl playing a fun game with peas at the dinner table. There are also some flashback sequences involving the astronomer’s character as a young man that prove important to the story.
“The Midnight Sky” does a wonderful job of balancing slower-paced drama with some high-thrills. It all comes together with a thought-provoking, satisfying ending.