The Midnight Sky


George Clooney confirms that Santa Clause has left the pole.

(2020) Science Fiction (Netflix) George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demiån Bichir, Tiffany Boone, Sophie Rundle, Ethan Peck, Tim Russ, Miriam Shor, Lilja Nott Karlsdottir, Ątli Oskar Fjalarsson, Eden Hayhurst, Jamie Schneider, Eysis Clarken, Sam Bond, Tia Bannon, Olivia Noyce, Kishore Bhatt, Natasha Jenssen, Sarah Guerin. Directed by George Clooney

 

Hope is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it’s all that keeps us going in the face of terrible odds; but as it can motivate us to greater things, it can destroy us when it is crushed inside us.

Augustine (Clooney) is an astronomer who is the last remaining researcher at a polar observatory. The rest of the crew were evacuated back home, where an unspecified disaster overtook them and the rest of the human race. Augustine himself didn’t leave because he essentially has nowhere else to go, and besides, he has a serious illness which he is self-treating with periodic transfusions which he administers himself.

He makes a couple of discoveries; one, a NASA spaceship – the Aether – is returning from an exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moons to see if a newly discovered Jovian moon is potentially habitable by humans. Thee good news is that the answer is YES) but the bad news is that they have no idea what has happened back home and should they attempt to land, the crew will all fall victim to the same thing that decimated the population of their home.

The other thing Augustine discovers is that a little girl, whom he names Iris (Springall) – after a drawing of the selfsame flower that she gives him – has apparently been left behind after the evacuation. She seems to be mute, but perhaps that’s just as well. Augustine knows that she is now his responsibility, as he can’t very well send her into the death zone and there’s nobody else there. However, he has to warn off the Aether and in order to do that, he has to get a bigger antenna (oh, save your jokes people – this is a family site) and in order to do that, he has to hike to a different site through a winter storm. Meanwhile, the Aether has problems of its own; the Commander’s (Oyelowo) girlfriend (Jones) is pregnant, and they are about to head through an uncharted meteor debris field with their communications array and radar equipment in need of repair which will require a dangerous spacewalk.

Clooney, who up to now has steered clear of effects-heavy films, actually proves to have a pretty good eye for them. The asteroid sequence is pretty thrilling and while the Aether has been accurately described elsewhere as a “baroque Christmas ornament filmed by Stanley Kubrick” (thanks, Variety) the space sequences are fairly realistic.

One of the problems with the film is that there are some holes in logic; for example, we have developed the technology to send a manned mission to Jupiter and equip it with an impressive VR technology, but back on good ol’ earth the technology doesn’t look much evolved beyond what we already have. Does. Not. Compute.

Still, Clooney tackles a role that he doesn’t often take on and he does a great job with it, particularly in the pathos-filled climax. There are three ongoing stories being told here; what’s going on with Augustine, what’s going on aboard the Aether and flashbacks to the past. Clooney as a director has the skill to weave them all together and tie everything up in a neat little bow by movie’s end.

The problem is that there aren’t any really fresh ideas here in terms of the story. It feels like the movie was assembled Frankenstein-style from the parts of a lot of other movies – some better than this one, some not so much. The movie lacks something fresh to it that sci-fi fans tend to crave, although an interesting watch party game could be concocted with a bingo card made up of different sci-fi movies that one checks off when something from that movie shows up onscreen in this one. Make sure you have Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar all on your game card if you decide to play.

Although this was always meant to be a Netflix film, this might well have been a Holiday tentpole in gentler times. It’s a shame some of the effects won’t have the advantage of being shown on a theater screen, maybe even a premium IMAX or equivalent screen (worth the admission alone for the asteroid sequence). For home entertainment purposes, it is a bit slow-moving and has some Deep Ideas to its credit, but still makes for interesting viewing if you’re of a mind to Netflix and chill and you are into some cerebral science fiction.

REASONS TO SEE: Clooney gives a strong performance. The special effects are pretty good.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels cobbled together from a lot of other sci-fi films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie that Augustine is watching is On the Beach, which stars Gregory Peck whose grandson Ethan plays a younger Augustine.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: IO
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Some Kind of Heaven

Outlander


Outlander

Where's the spam? Bloody Vikings!

(2008) Science Fiction (Third Rail) Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, Ron Perlman, Sophia Myles, Jack Huston, Cliff Saunders, Patrick Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Bailey Maughan, John E. Nelles, James Rogers, Scott Owen, Petra Prazak. Directed by Howard McCain

Here, there be dragons and they often show up in the most unlikely of places. Dragons can be creatures of great power but they can also be the demons that gnaw at us from the inside, piece by piece.

Kainan (Caviezel) is a humanoid who has crash-landed his space vehicle on Earth – eighth century Norway to be exact. He is escaping a massacre at his space colony by a species called Moorwen. One of them stowed away aboard his spacecraft, causing it to crash on what is called by the ship computer “an abandoned seed colony.”  This implies that our planet was originally colonized by out-of-towners. Darwin might be amused.

Anyway, the Moorwen has crashed the ship and killed Kainan’s co-pilot.  The Moorwen is loose on a planet woefully unequipped to deal with him. Kainan goes on the hunt but gets captured by Vikings. This particular group is ruled by King Hrothgar (Hurt), an aging but wise king whose feisty daughter Freya (Myles) is promised to Wulfric (Huston), a hot-headed warrior who’s poised to take over leadership of the clan once Hrothgar makes his inevitably unscheduled trip to Valhalla.

Hrothgar has other fish to fry other than this Outlander. His men are disappearing in the woods, which at first is blamed on the Outlander but then on a rival clan led by King Gunnar (Perlman). Soon, Kainan convinces them that what is after them is a monster unlike any they’ve ever encountered and killing it will be no easy feat. But kill it they must, or it will kill them all and eventually, wiping out the human race.

This is a bit of an amalgam of the Viking epic and sci-fi horror. It is one of those movies that suffers from having a budget smaller than its ambitions. Filmed in Canada, the cinematography is gorgeous. Where the movie lets us down a bit is in the special effects. While the spaceship is at least satisfactory, the creature – the Moorwen – is poorly lit, despite its bioluminescence. It has a Giger-esque quality to it, but it remains frustratingly elusive. I just wish we could have seen it better.

Caviezel, whose career stalled after his appearance as the Messiah in The Passion of the Christ, does little to revive it here. He’s humorless and his face shows little emotion. With a little more animation and emotion, this could have been a memorable role. Unfortunately by the time the film ends, Kainan is largely forgotten.

Perlman has some fun with a sadly brief appearance and Hurt lends the movie some much-needed gravitas. Myles shines here as the daughter who serves as the love interest, creating a triangle between Wulfric and Kainan. She’s both feisty and capable, the femme fatale and the damsel in distress. She can hold her own with the boys but is still easy on the eyes. Good work. Huston, from one of the movies’ most revered families, has the thankless role as the suspicious warrior who ends up being Kainan’s friend. It’s a cliche part but at least Huston performs it well.

Movies like this can be massively entertaining. While this falls short of the massive adjective, it certainly is entertaining enough. Unfortunately, it got almost no distribution in the US at all, another case of a studio picking up a property they didn’t really know what to do with and then giving it a nominal release with almost zero publicity support. While this was never going to be a blockbuster, it deserved a little more push than it got. Still, it’s worth looking out for on the action-adventure shelf if you’re looking for something a little new and a little different.

WHY RENT THIS: Caviezel is a capable action hero. Movie is beautifully photographed for the most part. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI Moorwen isn’t up to snuff.

FAMILY VALUES: There is considerable violence and some disturbing creature images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in history in which Old Norse, an ancestor language of Icelandic and several other Scandinavian languages, is spoken onscreen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing unusual here in terms of features, the deleted scenes add up to nearly 40 minutes of additional footage, unusually high for a movie like this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Double Hour (La doppia ora)