(I knew next to nothing about Midnight Special going in, and if you’re curious at all and haven’t yet seen the trailer, I recommend you follow suit. I’ll give a general overview and then a fair warning when I discuss things it may be best not to know about until you see it, though the trailer gives plenty of the same plot points away.)
Midnight Special is the latest film from Jeff Nichols, who previously brought us Take Shelter and Mud. Take Shelter was one of my Top 10 films of 2011, and Midnight Special shares a lot in common with that movie — most obviously, its star, Michael Shannon.
Take Shelter told a tale of a coming apocalypse on a shoestring budget with only a handful of set pieces, with Shannon’s character warning his friends and neighbors that they’d better do as the title suggested if they want to survive Judgment Day. But that film left us to wonder whether or not this was a figment of the lead character’s paranoid imagination. There’s no such ambiguity here, unless we assume that Michael Shannon and everyone else in the film are really off their rockers. Moments in Midnight Special definitely require some shelter-taking.
But like Take Shelter, Midnight Special still leaves a lot of room for interpretation, too. At various points in the film, you might think it’s about time travel, extra-terrestrials, or the afterlife. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. The film opens in a motel room, with a closeup of a piece of duct tape placed over the peephole. There’s a news report about an abducted child on the TV. Why the duct tape is there, and who this boy is, are mysteries that are revealed to us gradually over the course of the story.
Along with Shannon, the film stars Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver, and takes place in and around Louisiana. The film was completed in 2014, and for some reason was held back for release until now. That’s not totally surprising — like some of Nichols’ other films, it’s the kind of film that straddles the line between major studio release and an indie sensibility. We don’t see many sci-fi films that take place entirely in rural America, set against a backdrop of dusty highways, dingy roadside motels, and marshy wetlands. And we don’t see very many that take such time building suspense, that so slowly unfurl their mysteries.
(This is the part of the review that gives a little more away, though still no major spoilers.)
Midnight Special is a sci-fi movie about a boy who is… let’s just say “special.” It may remind you of such diverse films as Firestarter, Mercury Rising, and a lot of Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre. (It could aptly be retitled Close Encounters Of The Sugarland Express.) In particular, I am reminded of Rian Johnson’s Looper, because it tells a sci-fi story with an epic scope on a pretty modest budget, using special effects sparingly, and its plot also hinges on a child with very unique abilities. (Unfortunately, I also couldn’t help but think of the extremely loud and incredibly annoying child protagonist in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, but the less said about that the better. Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton is a far more palatable precocious tyke.)
There are a handful of great scenes in Midnight Special, many of which gesture toward a more conventionally-structured studio film with a much larger budget. The film’s opening act is a total mystery — we can sense that the boy’s kidnappers aren’t merely seeking random, but have a larger mission on their minds, but what is it? How does the Christian cult led by Sam Shephard factor in? And why is the NSA, represented here by a pre-Force Awakens Adam Driver, so interested in this child?
Most of this is answered, though somewhat sketchily. Midnight Special shrouds itself in a vagueness that may frustrate those looking for a more straightforward, mainstream sci-fi thriller, and the relationships between its characters may not be complex enough to fully satisfy fans of Nichols’ previous work. Many themes are touched upon, but none emerge as the overarching idea behind this story. The best sci-fi tales are allegorical parables, but Midnight Special doesn’t appear to be. Early on, it appears that the film will take on religion — there’s a cultish Christian community that worships Alton, though Nichols unceremoniously drops this plot thread in the first act. The government is made to look overly bureaucratic and silly, but this is a passing joke. It’s not totally clear what’s at stake. There are nods toward Dunst, Shannon, and Lieberher being a happy family unit, but we don’t spend enough time relating to them on that level. Alton’s a strange, otherworldly kid, so it’s never much of a question whether or not he belongs among more “normal” kids. Driver, Edgerton, and Shannon take turns being the protagonist, but none of them quite emerge as a leading figure we can follow through this tale.
These are relatively minor gripes in an entertaining enough film, one that feels very certain about its ideas but has difficulty conveying what exactly those are. (This, oddly, reminded me of another ambitious but modestly budgeted sci-fi film, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.) If nothing else, it indicates that Nichols might be a solid candidate in following Rian Johnson’s footsteps from Looper to Star Wars. (He’s already on good terms with Kylo Ren.)