After having acted in two of the 21st Century's finest slow-moving movies about space travel, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris in 2002 and Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity in 2013, George Clooney has taken it upon himself to make one of his very own. And thus we have him not only directing, but headlining The Midnight Sky (his first time acting in a feature since Hail, Caesar! and Money Monster in 2016), an adaptation of Lilly Brooks-Dalton's 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight. And quite a direct copycat of Gravity it is, in places, when it's not copying Interstellar even more directly (Solaris has had the good luck to escape without notice). The important caveat is that it's a copycat of all these movies directed by George Clooney, a man whose estimable charms as an old-school movie star have never been able to do much about the fact that he's just not really talented as either a writer or director. And he didn't write The Midnight Sky, that task fell to Mark L. Smith (most recently of Overlord, though The Revenant was probably the more germane experience), but it still has the exhausting, plodding cloddishness of a filmmaker who has a persistent knack for weighing his movies down with overbaked seriousness, even the comedies. I think the best thing I can say about the film is that it's way better than his last film, the venomous Suburbicon; at least The Midnight Sky is supposed to be dour and miserable.

The time: 2049, two weeks after An Unidentifed Event that has apparently put the entire human race in immediate jeopardy, because damn near every living person has tried to escape, though where to and by what conveyance is one of the bits of its backstory the film leaves purposefully vague, never to end up explaining things. The place: north of the Arctic Circle, where a terminally ill astrophysicist with the irresistible name of Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) has stayed behind to keep from the mass evacuation, knowing that he'll be dead so soon that it's not even worth the upheaval, and this way he gets to try to make contact with any humans returning to the ruined Earth from this or that space mission, warning them to stay the hell away. One such space mission is the flight of the Æther, returning home from investigating K-23, a newly-discovered Jovian moon that looks like a promising site for future human settlements. Onboard, Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) heads a small research team including pilot Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demián Bichir), whose specific role I missed, and Sully (Felicity Jones), whose specific role I also missed, though of course her main task is to be the focal point played by the most famous, recognisable face in the movie after Clooney, and Clooney's face has anyways been made much less recognisable, cocooned behind a wild bird's nest of a beard that makes him look even more like a dissolute, angry Santa Claus than Mel Gibson did as an actual dissolute, angry Santa Claus in Fatman. Back on Earth, Augustine is horrified to find that he's not alone: a young mute girl (Caoilinn Springall) has somehow been left behind by the evacuees, and the two of them form the usual ad hoc family made up of lost souls in extreme circumstances dealie. We understand that this is meant to be emotionally rich because of the insanely bossy score, the worst I have ever heard by Alexandre Desplat, which twinkles cutely and gets moody and pensive and does not fucking stop for the film's entire running time.

The Midnight Sky both does and doesn't feel like two completely different plotlines loosely crammed together into one body. On the one hand, they obviously belong together, not just because the narratives end up connecting when Augustine's staticky voice first pipes up on the Æther's radio. They have a certain affinity, built around humans in isolation with dwindling optimism for the uncertain future. On the other hand, the pivoting back and forth between the two main threads is done very shabbily. And we can add a third thread, really: Augustine's memories of the love that he lost and the baby he abandoned, when he was played by Ethan Peck, but with the horribly distracting addition of Clooney's digitally de-aged voice coming out of his mouth, under a veneer of bright gold color correction that is presumably meant to read as "aching nostalgia", but instead reads as "the surface of Venus". These three (two and a half?) strands of narrative are interwoven with absolutely no care paid to momentum or rhythm, and so the whole thing keeps jamming on the brakes with no warning, to brutally shift lanes.

Fortunately, since it never steps on the gas to begin with, all of the braking doesn't really cause too much trouble. I would be extremely hard-pressed to actually say what happens in The Midnight Sky: Augustine and the girl have to brave the desolate, frozen landscape to reach a radio tower that will expand his range, at one point, but this is resolved far too early to be the actual plot of that half of the movie, and there's nothing at all that happens onboard the Æther worth talking about. Given the number of Augustine's flashbacks, and the amount of time Sully and the rest of those people have conversations about their lives and hopes and all, I gather that this is meant to be a character study, possibly tinged with sad irony about the hopeless universe this all takes place in. Unfortunately, in order for this to work, we'd need to learn more about the characters, and The Midnight Sky is astonishingly bad at making that happen. Augustine's flashbacks and his mute young friend really just get us as far as "he regrets having not even tried to be a father", which is such an ancient cliché, especially in what amounts to a disaster movie, that it needs more to be worth watching than simply to exist. And the five astronauts are thin sketches, in part to allow the film to unveil some momentous secrets later on. But this isn't a thriller, where narrative surprises are welcome, it's a character study, where the sooner we learn about people, the more we can do something with that knowledge. Instead, we just end up watching them, impersonal third parties. That works for something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but The Midnight Sky isn't trying to go that route, and Clooney is anyway a far cry from Stanley Kubrick.

Plus, we spend so much time with these people! I think it is incontestably the case that, trite as it is, the material with Augustine and the girl is active, and fraught with danger, and it at least has velocity, but the film keeps ripping itself away to visit the Æther, where it spends what feels like much more time. The result is a movie that feels like it's on pause for nearly all of its 118 minutes, and it's indescribably inert and, well, boring as a result.

Just about the only place where it wakes up are in its thankfully generous visual effects scenes, where we discover just where all of Netflix's money went. As I said, the film is not at all ashamed to make us think of Gravity, and good on it for making that comparison sort of justified. The less said about the CGI landscapes, the better, but the actual space material, including the busy structure of the Æther itself as it glides through the vacuum, is pretty fantastic, with just a hint of poetic gauziness to help offset any shortcomings in the rendering. Why there's no such visual sensibility in the rather banal shots of humans, I cannot say, but I'll take whatever the film is willing to give me. If it can't work convincingly as a human drama, at least it can work, intermittently, as spectacle.