For all of his skill as an actor, George Clooney is a remarkably mediocre director.
Yes, I know. Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for directing Good Night, and Good Luck but that film was honored more for what it was about than what it actually was. All of Clooney’s directorial efforts — from the Oscar-nominated to the Razzie-embraced — have suffered from two huge problems.
Number one, George Clooney can occasionally set up an interesting shot but he appears to have no idea how to create or maintain narrative momentum. His films tend to lay flat, with incidents piled on top of each other but you never get the feeling that there’s some sort of internal motor moving the action along. It’s not easy creating and maintaining a narrative flow but it’s something that all good film directors can do. It’s also something that Clooney has never managed to master. Instead, he seems to assume that his own good intentions and broader concerns will provide the film with whatever momentum it needs. Unfortunately, good intentions are not the same as storytelling talent and, as a director, Clooney rarely brings any of the nuance that’s makes him such a good actor. George Clooney could play Michael Clayton but he could never direct the film named for him.
This bring us to Clooney’s other problem as a director, which is that he approaches his films with this sort of dorky earnestness that feels incredibly old-fashioned. On the one hand, dorky earnestness can be a likable trait. On the other hand, when watching his directorial efforts, you do find yourself wondering if George Clooney has seen any films made after 1989. There’s nothing terribly subversive about George Clooney’s artistic vision. He’s not a director who takes you by surprise nor is he a director who is capable of making you look at the world in a different way. While other filmmakers are challenging preconceived notions and attempting to reinvent the cinematic language, Clooney is busy trying to revive live television productions and making the type of stolid films that haven’t been relevant since the end of the studio system. It’s a shame because, as an actor in films like Michael Clayton and Up In The Air, Clooney expertly revealed the insecurity that lurked underneath the seemingly perfectly façade of the seemingly successful alpha male. But as a director, he’s a third-rate Taylor Hackford. And while it’s true that not every director can be Martin Scorsese, is it too much to ask for a director who at least tries to do something unique or different? For someone who has enough money and international clout that he can basically get away with just about anything and who has worked multiple times with the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh, Clooney is an oddly risk-adverse filmmaker.
Unfortunately, all of Clooney’s directorial weaknesses are on display in The Midnight Sky, a rather slow science fiction film that would have made a good episode of The Twilight Zone but which falls flat as a movie. In this one, the world is ending and George Clooney is basically the last man left in the Arctic. Clooney is playing an astronomer who has spent his life searching for habitable planets and who is now dying of a terminal disease. He thinks he’s alone but then he comes across a mysterious girl named Iris. Iris rarely speaks and when she does speak, it’s to ask questions like, “Did you love her?” While Clooney is trying to figure where the little girl came from, he’s also trying to get in contact with a space mission so that he can warn them that the Earth is no longer inhabitable and they should relocate to one of Jupiter’s moon.
The space mission, meanwhile, is made up of Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bircher, and Tiffany Boone. They’re stuck in space and trying to figure out why they can’t communicate with Earth. There’s a scene where their station gets bombarded by asteroids. The special effects are impressive (and this is a film that, despite being released on Netflix, really is meant to be viewed on a big screen) but during the whole scene, I was like, “Hey, it’s Gravity all over again!” Clooney never makes the familiar material his own. Instead, you find yourself thinking about all of the other sci-fi films that you’ve seen about the end of the world. Clooney doesn’t have the eccentricity of Alfonso Cuaron nor does he have the frustrating but intriguing megalomania of Christopher Nolan. Instead, he’s still same the director who thought that Edward R. Murrow was never more compelling than when he was complaining about people wanting to be entertained.
Lest anyone think that I’m going overboard in my criticism, allow me to say that The Midnight Sky isn’t really terrible as much as it’s just incredibly bland and forgettable. As I said before, the special effects are impressive. Clooney manages a few properly desolate shots of the Arctic, though making the Arctic look like the end of the world isn’t exactly the most difficult task in the world. As an actor, Clooney wears a beard in The Midnight Sky. Whenever the beard makes an appearance, you know that Clooney means for us to take him seriously and he gives an okay performance. He delivers his lines convincingly but his character is a bit dull and you can’t help but feel that Clooney the director wasted the talents of Clooney the actor. The film probably would have been improved if he and Kyle Chandler had switched roles.
The Midnight Sky didn’t really work for me. The end of the world should never be this boring.