Mladen and Del review ‘The Midnight Sky’

Image courtesy of Netflix.

“The Midnight Sky” starring George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Caoilinn Springall, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone, and others. Directed by George Clooney. Runtime 118 minutes. Rated PG-13. Netflix

Mladen’s take

Rank the essential components – acting, directing, score, cinematography, and script – of “The Midnight Sky” individually and the results vary from good to very good. Combine the essential components of this Netflix production and the result is mediocrity.

It’s not that “Midnight,” despite its Adam-and-Eve ending and a twist that turned out to be, what, a terminal-cancer-driven hallucination, is entirely disappointing. It’s that its subplots weren’t particularly absorbing. Nor were its way-too-many characters consistently worth caring about.

In “Midnight,” the year is 2049 (maybe that’s a nod to 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”) and the jig is up for humanity. Actually, it’s the end for anything that breathes air as we know air today – mostly nitrogen, some oxygen, and a little bit of carbon dioxide, i.e. not enough to poison us. Before our planet’s atmosphere turned into a swirl of unbreathable toxic gases, mankind mounted an expedition to a newly discovered Jovian moon that could support complex life. The crew of the vessel was on its way home from a recon of moon K-23 when Mother Earth, reacting to our abuse of her, transformed into Serial Killer Earth. Augustine, portrayed by George Clooney, and accompanied by a young girl, has to make way for a weather station that likely has the capability to communicate with the spaceship returning to Earth. He wants to warn the crew that our planet is no longer habitable and offer a suggestion – return to Jupiter’s moon to re-plant our species on a pristine solar system body.

Why cosmologist Augustine feels he has to alert the crew of a spaceship built to probe a moon for signs it can support life that Earth is unsafe for them is beyond me. As the spaceship approached Earth, it was clearly visible to its crew that the planet’s atmosphere, now a green-yellow, had changed since they departed two years earlier. I’m no astronaut, but a discolored home world would have me saying something like, “Ensign, give me scans of the planet in UV and IR. What’s the spectroscopy saying about chemical composition of the atmosphere?” 

The spaceship has a crew of five, one of them Felicity Jones’s Sully, a pregnant communications specialist. As the spaceship’s sub-story unfolds through a course deviation, collisions with space rocks, and an assortment of personal anguish, one crew member dies, two decide to return to Earth the Stomper of Life via a lander, and two slingshot back toward K-23.

I predict Del will like this movie, giving it a B+. He’s like one of the dudes in “Midnight” who decides to go home, though home will kill you for sure. Del will strain to find the positive in “Midnight” like the movie’s Earth returners hoped to find family still alive. Don’t be fooled. “Midnight” ain’t that good.

The best you can expect from “Midnight” is a few bits of good storytelling backed by consistently good acting. The film’s score is sturdy, if not exceptional. It helps the tale by setting up moods. The visual effects in “Midnight” are very good. I enjoyed the cinematography the most when it conveyed the austere and stark blue whiteness of snow cover and ice pack in the North Pole. But, even that simple joy was harassed by an achy nagging at the back of my brain. As mentioned above, “Midnight” takes place in 2049. Ain’t no way there’ll be any ice pack or glaciers anywhere on Earth in 28 years. Want ice then? Place your glass beneath the ice dispenser on your refrigerator.

“The Midnight Sky” gets a C+ from me. Del, on the other hand, will likely nominate it for a best picture Oscar.

Del’s take

Merry Christmas, you old coot. Sounds like you’re sipping more of the “nog” than the “egg.”

You think I liked “The Midnight Sky”?

Piffle. Do I like any movie?

Folks may think I’m a serial hater but trust me, there are movies I adore – “Being There,” “Doctor Strangelove,” and “Die Hard” to name a few. “Midnight Sky” ain’t one of them.

Not to nerd out on all three of our readers but “Midnight” lost me at the opening narrative where we are informed mankind has discovered a “new moon” around the planet Jupiter, one that has the ability to support terrestrial life.

Oh, sweet Jesus, somebody hand me one of George Clooney’s barf bags.

To put it politely, that’s a preposterous crock of ca-ca. There is no more an undiscovered moon of Jupiter capable of supporting “The Property Brothers” than the Earth is flat, climate change ain’t happening and Donald Trump was an effective and cordial president.

(Yes, I did have to get my Trump bash in.)

With all the space probes we’ve sent to Jupiter – hell, we’ve got one there right now photographing everything from moons and lightning bolts to Jupiter getting out of the shower – the chances of a large moon escaping our carefully studied inspections are nil. Not almost nil. Totally, completely and incontrovertibly nil. Nil nil nil, as in where have you been the past 30 years and you’re an idiot for even suggesting such a stupid departure from reality.

Seriously, it isn’t written in stone that a movie’s science must be accurate. Obviously the science of “Star Wars” is so far off the mark it qualifies as fantasy, and let’s not talk about movies like “Godzilla” and “Transformers.” But if you, the moviemaker, present the science as a pillar of the film’s premise, then you must make sure it’s consistent – or at least plausible – with what we already know. Had the makers of “Midnight” consulted a single astronomy buff they could have adjusted their ca-ca premise.

OK, enough nerd stuff. I can see two of our readers are asleep. Suffice it to say the scientific implausibilities that I mentioned, along with those Mladen noticed even in his nogged-out state, pretty much ruined the movie for me.

The rest of “Midnight” is a depressing pastiche of tropes and science fiction clichés interspersed with scenes of George Clooney throwing up. Was anybody else grossed out by the vomit in his Unabomber beard? Funny, the ca-ca Hollywood thinks people want to see. As for Mladen’s “consistently good acting,” I’m sorry but what the hell was he smoking? Clooney’s narcoleptic performance failed to impress despite the bombastic promotionals. The only actor who showed the tiniest sign of life was Kyle Chandler, who uttered one laugh-out-loud line. The plot consisted of a series of contrived and impossible cliffhangers. The script seemed inspired by “A Recipe for Seduction” in terms of silliness and the movie as a whole struck me as Frankensteined from bits and pieces of “Gravity,” “Interstellar” and other mediocre SF films.

By the way, “We messed up” is not sufficient explanation for the end of the world.

What’s good about “The Midnight Sky”?

The special effects are pretty. Sound of crickets chirping. I can’t think of anything else.

What irritates me is “Midnight” could have been an excellent movie. The problems could have been fixed easily enough so that grouchy old bastards like Mladen and me could go back to grumping about our prostates. It’s just sloppiness and laziness, and as a storyteller myself it pisses me off.

I’ve recommended a lot of Netflix movies lately but if you miss this one you haven’t missed much. I give it a C-.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Disney Studios.

“Tomorrowland” Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, and Hugh Laurie. Directed by Brad Bird. 130 minutes. Rated PG.

Mladen’s take

I disliked the film “Tomorrowland,” but it’s my fault. I’m a bigot. There’s nothing anyone can say or do to make me like people. Del’s influence, in that regard, by the way, only feeds my bigotry.

That’s the task the actors and actress in “Tomorrowland” were given. They had to convince me – for I am Audience – that humanity was worth saving, that a society can choose its destiny, that we can reverse climate change, end food deprivation, and stop fighting wars. It was something about deciding which “wolf to feed,” the one of darkness and despair or the one of light and hope, according to this Disney sci-fi adventure.

In the film, Frank (George Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson), both humans, and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a robot, struggle against the governor of Tomorrowland and his tachyon-fired machine, which sees the future. According to the orb with blue streams of light that attach it, I assume, to spacetime, Mankind will expire in roughly 59 days.

My response to the countdown was, “Hallelujah, about goddamned time humanity took it full-fist on the chin.” It’s vital that we kill ourselves before infesting space with our spore. Let us end ourselves before we end everything else.

But, no.

Do-gooder Casey, a STEM whiz kid of the first order, ends up cajoled by automaton Athena into trying to reverse mankind’s headlong plunge into the abyss. Along the way, Casey meets Frank, who was once like her – an optimist and believer in the wonderfulness of technology, which could turn savages (us) into hearts of gold and empathy. Frank, like Casey, also used to never give up. The vibrant youngster and disillusioned old timer, protected by Athena, go on a spectacular adventure that includes an epic scene involving the Eiffel Tower and battles with cyborgs wielding sound-pulse handguns and beam rifles. I must confess I was amused by the terminator that smiled at all the wrong times.     

Does the trio save mankind? Eh, it doesn’t matter.

You should drop a dime to see “Tomorrowland” at the theater, not because the film is intelligible or uplifting or leaves you with a sense of wonder and hope. See the movie to support two fine young actresses – Robertson and Cassidy. There’s a risk that if the film bombs at the box office, it’ll slow their ascent in Hollywood. Moore and Bullock ain’t going to be around forever.

And, yes, Clooney does pull off something remarkable in the film. He’s his usual charming self even when playing the role of a curmudgeon exiled from a spit-and-polish utopia embedded somewhere out there in another dimension.

Del’s take

The world is going to hell in a handbasket – yes, we get that. But what are YOU doing to fix it?

That is the message, delivered with blunt force trauma, of “Tomorrowland.” The movie, a two-hour 12-step program for recovering Negative Nellies, correctly asks us to believe each and every one of us must take action to ensure a golden future. But the message is delivered with such clumsy ham-handedness I wonder if “Tomorrowland’s” target demographic isn’t that 12-year-old whose brain has been damaged by “Grand Theft Auto.”

In “Tomorrowland” a young woman (Britt Robertson’s Casey) who is trying to make the world a better place catches a glimpse of a bright and shiny future complete with jet packs, levitating trains, rockets to the stars and a multi-cultural, egalitarian society consisting of peace-loving PhDs who have figured out how mankind can live in harmony with nature. But the accidental snake in this garden of Eden (George Clooney’s Frank), conjures a machine that sees the past and the future. It’s vision of what follows becomes self-fulfilling, and the countdown to mankind’s extinction has begun.

The two young female actors deliver excellent performances, as does Hugh Laurie as Gov. Nix. George Clooney delivers George Clooney, and while that’s not objectionable it doesn’t do a lot to advance the storytelling planchette.

“Tomorrowland” is typical Disney fare – wholesome and uplifting. You’ll hear no cursing, and most of the violence is robot on robot. The only deviation from the Disney credo is our young heroine’s penchant for committing acts of vandalism, all in the name of good, of course.

“Tomorrowland’s” problems are its complexity, with stories within stories that must be worked out. At times it was hard to connect the dots and I simply went with what was on the screen, hoping realization would dawn.

The bigger problem was the movie’s lack of subtlety. At times the characters seemed to be saying, “This is what the movie is about.” All this was capped off by a Gov. Nix soliloquy toward the end where he does tell us what the movie’s about. That’s when I decided I was watching “Tomorrowland” the wrong way. As a children’s movie it works just fine.

My thinking is “Tomorrowland” may find a place in the digital libraries of illegally downloaded movies among the John Green crowd, but for adults it’s thin gruel.

I grade it a C+.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Gravity” Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. 91 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Del’s take

“Gravity” is a stunning spectacle of special effects and a riveting depiction of the human will to survive. But its characters are thinly sketched and their motivations contrived, which pulls the movie from the lofty realm of a classic to the merely good, despite the “buzz” and Oscar talk.

In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a mission specialist, on her first space shuttle flight. She and old hand astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are part of a Hubble Space Telescope repair team which falls afoul of a Russian anti-satellite test gone wrong. The ensuing cloud of orbiting debris, traveling at thousands of miles per hour, destroys their shuttle and leaves Stone and Kowalski in orbit – alone.

They must make their way to the International Space Station, and from there a Chinese space station, all the while dodging a killer cloud of orbiting junk and racing against the clock before their oxygen is depleted. At every turn their efforts are thwarted by the expected and unexpected perils presented by spaceflight.

The star of “Gravity” is not Bullock but the special effects. We did not see the 3-D version but I expect it is spectacular. Even in 2-D you feel as though you’re floating above the earth with nothing between you and the ground but 150 miles of vacuum and 50 miles of air. For sufferers of acrophobia (like yours truly) the view was sometimes sweaty palm-inducing. Never in a movie did I feel as though I were actually there, and the claustrophobia of being confined to a spacesuit with no option to pop the helmet and take a breath of fresh air was so pervasive it almost became a third character.

And “Gravity” is an edge-of-your-seat thriller to be sure. Pauses in tension are few, and you’ll come out of the theater with aching muscles as you tried to help Bullock push this way and pull that. In that respect “Gravity” strikes me as more of an “Armageddon” and less of an “Apollo 13.”

As I said, the characters are thinly sketched, which may have been a necessity given “Gravity’s” narrative structure. Still, we get to know Dr. Stone somewhat but nobody else, including astronaut Kowalski. As you might expect under the circumstances Stone has a fatalistic view of her outcome and it is amplified by the loss of a child, requiring that she be coached and encouraged by Kowalski. That struck me as contrived and unnecessary. No matter how highly educated and motivated astronauts can be, and no matter what their burdens, when the issue at hand is survival every individual will behave predictably, and try to live. Bullock’s character does evolve during the movie, and that’s what all good characters do: They change as a result of their experiences. But in Bullock’s case the change seemed forced.

I found it puzzling Cuaron chose to abide by some scientific principles and ignore others. After reading astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson’s enumeration of the scientific errors in “Gravity,” I came prepared to ignore them for the benefit of watching a great story. But during the movie I found myself distracted by the implausibilities.

Is “Gravity” the best movie of the year? Is Bullock’s performance worthy of an Oscar? I would say no on both counts. While “Gravity” is entertaining, and Bullock’s performance commendable, I didn’t come out of the theater with any lasting impression of either.

Still, it’s nice to see a film that isn’t a sequel and isn’t based on some “blockbuster” premise make its way to theaters and do well at the box office. Maybe Hollywood can take a lesson from “Gravity” and return to making films from original stories.

Mladen’s take

(Spoiler alert)

“Gravity” is one of my worst movie-going fears realized, a film promising action but delivering little more than maudlin introspection.

The movie betrayed me. It also betrayed Del, though he doesn’t fully accept it.

Del summed the plot nicely. A series of improbable events sires both the prospect of our heroine dying alone in space or surviving despite implacable odds.

Had “Gravity” fulfilled its promise, what I would’ve seen was an intelligent, nicely configured middle-aged woman give fate the middle finger as she demonstrated what training, technical prowess, and a will to live can accomplish.

In response, fate would’ve contributed not only dumb-ass Russians inopportunely blowing up one of their own satellites to create a hypervelocity constellation of space debris holing everything in its path, but also micrometeorites, sun flares, gravitons, an atmosphere salient jutting far into space that threatened incineration if entered, and an interesting sidekick for Stone rather than the quasi-cowboy-like character portrayed by Clooney.

Instead, the film yields sequences of free-floating, spin-induced disorientation and bodies slamming into solid objects such as space modules. Each bit of extra-atmospheric action is followed by moments of a person talking to herself about staying hopeful and alive. Hell, Stone even references Heaven at one point, though earlier she had said to herself that she never prays. This “no-one-in-a-foxhole-is-an-atheist” triteness only added to the movie’s superfluous feel.

Efforts to convey the spiritual impact of what Stone and Kowalski, and then Stone alone, faced were as empty as the vacuum of space. Kowalski’s seemingly unselfish and chivalrous suicide was nothing of the sort because it was unnecessary.

Suicide comes along again when Stone, ensconced in a Russian – there they are again – Soyuz vehicle, decides there’s no chance of surviving. She turns off the capsule’s oxygen supply and begins to pass out when there’s a knock on the capsule’s door. It’s handsome Kowalski waving to her through the door’s portal. The silliness of it just about exploded my head.

Kowalski, of course, is a figment of Stone’s oxygen-starved imagination. The apparition, after he takes a swig of vodka craftily hidden aboard the capsule by one of Kowalski’s cosmonaut friends, tells Stone how to make the best of a very, very, very, very, very bad situation. Yes, the capsule’s main engine is out of fuel, but its soft-landing thrusters have the juice to get her to the Chinese space station, which has a fully functioning return-to-Earth capsule.

A fiery atmospheric reentry scene and near-drowning later, Stone swims to the shore of a pristine lake surrounded by an idyllic land, not a single artifact of humanity in sight. Stone is going to get a fresh start was the message of the film’s last scene.

Who cares?

Not me.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a journalist and author.