Actor, director and producer, George Clooney is the head of Midnight in the Universe, alongside Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, and Caoilinn Springall. Scheduled for Christmas on Netflix, this 100 million blockbuster adaptation of the book by Lily Brooks-Dalton has everything to be year-end cardboard. Which would be really funny considering those pretty radishes.
There was a time when George Clooney, actor and director, rhymed with Charlie Kaufman’s crazy passion for Confessions of a Dangerous Man and the classy black and white of Good Night, and Good Luck. After two brief decades that feel like centuries, he is still exploring more gaps in which his filmmaking career continues, but this time on Netflix. With $100 million to adapt the book Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton, and a Christmas window to win thanks to SVoD’s giant homepage, Clooney is back, for what should be one of the pinnacle zeros of his career with Batman & Robin.
In Midnight in the Universe, the end of the world is here, for the characters and perhaps for the audience. Earth is in bad shape as toxic air is slowly eating away at the surface, and an old, bearded and dying scientist decides to stay in his Arctic station, because he is so lonely and so desperate. Except that he will end up with a little girl in his arms, and children are the future of mankind of course. In space, another ship is back, with good news about a planet capable of welcoming our species. Except no one knew it was too late, and they had better get right back.
In Midnight in the Universe, there is action and emotion, snow and spacesuits, death and sacrifice, surprise and spectacle. Everything seems to have been held together by a lousy algorithm, so Midnight in the Universe ends in a cocktail catamaran, borrowing the worst from disaster films, space films, adventure films, and Sunday melodramas. Or the Christmas story we deserve, to end this dirty year of despair.
First problem: almost nothing happens in the Midnight universe. On the one hand, the old man went from point A to point B, reluctantly accompanied by a child, into hostile territory. On the other hand, the crew returns to Earth, and takes care of it. The stakes and conflicts are so small that the later scenarios will fill in the blanks, with adventures that are either ridiculous, harmless, or far-fetched.
On Earth, there are scenes of panic and flight on the ice, so badly edited and filmed that they seem like the pieces are missing, and which alternate between implausible and implausible. In outer space, there’s the unavoidable dismounting of a wetsuit scene, abusing the genre’s most mundane ideas, alongside some unbearable bullshit and brackets. It’s not Gravity and the Mission to Mars that will do it.
Almost nothing happens at Midnight in the universe and since then the bullshit radar has been on. Augustine nearly dies to save a bag that ends up having no impact on the rest, a first aid kit on board is placed in a remote location for no reason (despite the tension), and Sully’s pregnancy is more than questionable. Felicity Jones was pregnant and George Clooney decided to make her part of the screenplay, because why not).
Even worse, Midnight in the Universe is a complete void in terms of artistic direction. On Earth, it’s a minor fiasco with snow and other green backgrounds, which never gives the feeling of wandering in a white desert at apocalypse. Apart from the three wolves and the plane wreckage, there was nothing. On the ether side, it’s even worse because the entire design of the ship is a collection of senseless cliches, thought out for the simple pleasure of the eye – at least the eyes lulled by the curves of Ikea furniture.
There’s no need to look for the true meaning of luminous scales, large spaces or artistic patterns on the walls: the low-end aesthetic triumphs over the rest, even if it means giving the impression of being in an attic bunker. Aether’s exterior isn’t much better, and the special effects it delivers feel like a big virtual toy.
Another failure: Alexandre Desplat’s music. Between the mundane little twists for an SF movie (the kind of sub-Star Trek heard on an off-ship plane) and the shallow sensational flight (the wrong mission), the music is symptomatic of this film devoid of any personality.
But the worst is yet to come. Thanks to an incredible double twist, Midnight in the Universe goes from a lukewarm bad film to a huge dripping, wacky turnip. Should give full meaning to adventure and character, this conclusion mtakes the look of a big joke, worthy of an episode of Dallas in space.
The problem isn’t even that these twists are more or less obvious or that they raise serious questions about point of view in some scenes, after the fact. The thing is, they turned the suspension of disbelief (a beautiful concept that helps people believe in anything and everything in fiction) into a pact of absurdity. The film is clearly dreaming to draw some tears, but there’s only laughter tinged with exasperation at the end.