Eight year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with unearthly abilities, is on the run from both the cult that exploits him and the US government. With the help of his father (Michael Shannon), he must fulfil his destiny.
You may have missed it amongst all the domestic drama, but there’s often been a supernatural tinge to writer-director Jeff Nichols’ work. His last film, Mud, teased that its fugitive title character (played by Matthew McConaughey) might be a little more than human, while the man hunting him was described as “the devil his’self” (our attempt at writing an Arkansas accent). The movie before, Take Shelter, conjured vast visions of an apocalypse that may have sprung from the troubled mind of its protagonist (Shannon). Now, in his fourth picture, Nichols finally puts the supernatural front and centre.
This is really just a story about the joy and pain of parenthood, something you certainly won’t miss amid the pyrotechnics and celestial visions.
As with his previous two films, Midnight Special plays with religious themes (perhaps to be expected from a filmmaker raised in the Bible belt). Cosmically gifted/cursed child Alton (Lieberher) and his father Roy (Michael Shannon) are fleeing a Christian-ish cult which feeds on Alton’s glowy-eyed power. But while the boy’s origin is resolutely mysterious, it at least becomes clear he is something other than divine.
Through both his propulsive road-chase plot-engine and lens-flaring visual style, Nichols makes good on his claim that Midnight Special is a tribute to John Carpenter’s Starman and Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. He’s not the first 21st-century filmmaker to draw from the ’80s sci-fi well, of course. J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 was an unreserved Amblin tribute, while Rian Johnson’s Looper riffed on early Cameron and Verhoeven. Midnight Special would complement both perfectly on a triple bill, yet it remains distinctly A Jeff Nichols Film, while also proving far more than the sum of its references.
Nichols mounts impressive visual effects and frantic bursts of action; one awesome sequence sees an air-force satellite plucked from orbit and brought down, flaming like a meteorite storm, onto a petrol station. But the film’s strength is in its humanity rather than its super-humanity, whether that’s being realised by Adam Driver as empathic NSA investigator Sevier, Joel Edgerton as Roy’s capable, conscience-driven partner-in-crime Lucas, or Shannon and Lieberher at the story’s heart. It’s a shame, though, that Kirsten Dunst’s role as Alton’s mother, Sarah, is frustratingly underwritten — almost as if the character were shoehorned in late in the writing process, as Nichols realised how male-dominated his film was.
For all Nichols’ mastery of the genre flourishes, from Alton’s incandescent glare to a dazzling final-act reveal, Midnight Special doesn’t hit harder than one intimate moment when Alton begs his dad to stop fretting about him, and Roy replies, “I like worrying about you.” After all, this is really just a story about the joy and pain of parenthood, something you certainly won’t miss amid the pyrotechnics and celestial visions.
Soulful sci-fi. A tribute to ’80s classics, but with a 21st-century twist: Close Encounters of a new kind.