Midnight Special (2016)


USA. 2016.


Director/Screenplay – Jeff Nichols, Producers – Sarah Green & Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Photography – Adam Stone, Music – David Wingo, Visual Effects – [Hy*drau*lx] (Supervisor – Bill Kunn), Special Effects Supervisor – John McLeod, Production Design – Chad Keith. Production Company – Tri-State Pictures


Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), Jaden Lieberher (Alton Meyer), Adam Driver (Paul Sevier), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Sam Shepard (Calvin Meyer), Bill Camp (Doak), Scott Haze (Levi), Paul Sparks (Agent Miller), David Jensen (Elden)


Roy Tomlin and his best friend Lucas are the subject of a cross-state manhunt for having abducted Roy’s eight year-old son Alton back from the custody of The Ranch, a religious cult in Texas. At the same time, The Ranch, is raided by the FBI asking questions about Alton’s visions and prophecies. It is revealed that the information that Alton has been communicating is highly classified encrypted material being transmitted by military satellites. Roy and Lucas are determined to drive Alton to a set of coordinates for an event that will occur on a date he has prophesied. As it becomes apparent during the course of the journey, Alton has incredible powers, including the ability to produce beams of light from his eyes, create power cuts and even brings satellites crashing down to Earth. Meanwhile, the military and armed cultists mount massive effort to capture Alton.

Midnight Special is the fourth film for the rising name of director Jeff Nichols. Nicholas had previously made Shotgun Stories (2007) and Mud (2012) and subsequently went on to Loving (2016). He first entered genre territory with Take Shelter (2011), which featured Michael Shannon as a possibly crazy man with visions of the end of the world. Common themes seem to run through all of Nichols’ films – they are set against the backdrop of the South and in particular Arkansas where he grew up. There is the frequent theme of outlaws and/or people who live outside the mainstream – both Mud and Midnight Special feature characters on the run from the law. Nichols has an affection for families and their ties, quietly observes the forces that divide them. In both Take Shelter and Midnight Special, Michael Shannon plays an ordinary father who becomes obsessed with his belief in something that all others around him regard as crazy.

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ broaching the science-fiction genre. The film could be described as a version of Starman (1984) with a kid in lieu of Jeff Bridges, while the last quarter involving the break through a heavily cordoned military area to reach a preordained rendezvous with something otherworldly could have been lifted from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The climactic scenes suggest something of what Tomorrowland (2015) wanted to be. The miraculously gifted kid, the pursuing government agents, the quest for a meeting with the alien – these are all well-worn themes in 1980s science-fiction films that came in the wake of Close Encounters and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

You are absorbed in the film especially from the arresting opening that immediately throws us into the action. Here Nichols contrasts Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton on the run from the law with scenes of the FBI raid on The Ranch and Adam Driver coming in to question Sam Shepard’s church leader about how the child has managed to interpret highly encrypted military signals. By this point, one’s attention is decidedly piqued. On the other hand, you keep feeling that Jeff Nichols never truly has the mechanics of the criminals on the run film down pat – it is not a film that puts the screws on us in terms of nail-biting tension or twists, apart from one effectively abrupt scene with a shootout at a motel. What the film does offer is a series of increasingly way out scenes as Jaden Lieberher demonstrates his powers – blasting beams of light out of his eyes like a junior Cyclops; causing a military satellite to come raining down in a flaming meteorite shower at a roadside gas station; the escape from FBI custody.

You also feel that Jeff Nichols keeps playing the film out as a character drama – but does so with a bunch of characters that are blank or essentially uninteresting. He has chosen again to cast Michael Shannon who has played in all of his films. For all the rave reviews he gets, I find Shannon an actor that seems to radiate troubled intensity from his Neanderthal brow and bug eyes but rarely lets us into what is going on in his head. The gimlet-eyed Joel Edgerton is a name who has been on the rise and is less opaque, more an actor who frequently plays introverted – but about him we get to know almost nothing except that he is a state trooper and a longtime friend of Shannon. As to why he abruptly decided to break the law and go on a cross-country chase we never get a clue. Kirsten Dunst is a fine actress but the role she is given here is so much wallpaper it could have been played by anyone. Everyone comes with such truncated or unexplained motivations that you feel there is at least another entire film’s worth of material out there as to who all the characters and the church are and how they came together. The best performance in the film comes from Adam Driver who plays bespectacled, awkward but the most likeable character present. I never picked that this was the same person who played Kylo Ren in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) until I read the end credits.

The build-up of the film works well but the payoff is unsatisfying in terms of the science-fiction film that Jeff Nichols wants it to be. [PLOT SPOILERS] There is suitable awe to the climactic scenes where the gracefully beautiful buildings – all curved glass and steel structures and slowly turning vanes – materialise. But the film leaves you with a giant set of question marks. In that Jaden Lieberher refers to his coming from “another world that exists on top of this one”, what exactly does he mean – some other dimension? If Jaden comes from this other world how come he was born of two human parents, Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, in this world? What is the significance of the other world materialising inside the south-eastern quadrant of the United States – is it just their way of coming to collect Jaden Lieberher? How for that matter does an entire world manage to materialise inside this one without intruding on the space already inhabited by existing buildings and objects? Could they not have just materialised one building rather than a substantial portion of their world or is this intended to demonstrate some point? Why are the date and locations announced in advance? Why is Alton unable to go out during the day? You cannot help but feel that what we have is a film that exists more in terms of a series of amazing things and less in terms the way a science-fiction story should operate by offering a series of rational explanations for what is happening.

(Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver) at this site’s Best of 2016 Awards).

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