The Midnight Sky review – beardy George Clooney marooned in bland cosmic yarn

Encountering an acquaintance in London’s Piccadilly in the mid-1970s, Alec Guinness is said to have remarked, with a self-effacing smile, that he was growing a beard for a new science fiction film he was working on: “A small part, so a small beard.” George Clooney has a very big beard for his own medium-sized part in this negligible new sci-fi, which floats blandly in the cosmos, becalmed between two separate storylines, apparently planetstruck with wonderment.

Clooney also directs, working from a script that Mark L Smith has adapted from a 2016 bestseller by Lily Brooks-Dalton, Good Morning, Midnight. He does this with a sure hand, managing a disparate cast, each of whom has to deliver an individual emotional impact. As for his own performance, he handles this with modesty and style, although it is poignant to realise that Clooney has got to the career stage of not just having a grandfatherly beard, but a different actor to play in flashback his younger self, with a dark beard. This is Ethan Peck – although the voice would appear to be Clooney’s, dubbed in, but digitally altered to sound higher and lighter.

On Earth, decades into the future, renowned astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) lives all alone, prematurely aged with illness, in a deserted Arctic observatory station. Just a few days earlier, the facility had been abandoned by the entire staff and their families because of an unspecified global environmental catastrophe – although where everyone is going is not revealed: Lofthouse morosely asked to be left behind. In the evacuation chaos, one mother was shown screaming for her missing daughter, and Lofthouse is stunned, subsequently, to find a little girl wandering around the eerily empty place. She is Iris, played by newcomer Caoilinn Springall.

To add to his trauma and burden, Lofthouse realises there is an exploratory space flight on its way back to Earth, having assessed the habitability of a certain likely planet that Lofthouse had discovered as a younger man. The captain is Bowie-ishly named Tom (David Oyelowo). Under his command are Sully (Felicity Jones), Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demián Bichir) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). They have no idea what is going on, and it is Lofthouse’s job to warn them. To do this, he and his new young friend will have to make a gruelling journey through the snow to a more powerful transmission antenna to make radio contact.

This second, far-off transmitter is, of course, there to create an artificial “quest” narrative for Lofthouse and Iris, and their journey, for a post-apocalyptic moment, begins to resemble that in Cormac McCarthy’s grim The Road. In that story, the necessity of having to swim in freezing cold water has an awful effect on the adult involved, but here, Clooney’s grizzled old-timer can apparently swim in sub-zero Arctic depths without ill effect, despite his purported illness. He was also supposed to be drinking too much whisky, though in common with an ancient Hollywood tradition, the heavy boozing is shown at the very beginning (to denote pre-redemption self-pity) and thereafter not at all, the tense situation having, it seems, cured him of his need for alcohol. This is not the effect stress has on drinkers in real life.

And naturally, way out in the cosmos, the space crew all have their own upheavals, emotions and problems. The script is duly speckled with mini-dramas and micro-crises as the astronauts battle with difficulties with their ship: space storms and disturbances presumably connected with the eco-calamity that frazzled Planet Earth. But all the time these are happening, you might be wondering … look, what’s going on with Clooney and that little girl? We’re supposed to be chiefly invested in them … aren’t we?

Related: What if the mega-rich just want rocket ships to escape the Earth they destroy? | Jess Zimmerman

It’s a puzzle. The film floats sedately between these two situations, each distracting from the other’s sense of jeopardy. It glides up to a big, moony cosmic twist then swims placidly away. As for that alternative habitable planet, it’s quite a cliche – and rather a defeatist one, seen from an environmental standpoint in 2020 when saving our own precious planet is the priority. Clooney guides the performances competently, but the story drifts pointlessly into space.

• The Midnight Sky is released on 11 December in cinemas and on 23 December on Netflix.