More of a lukewarm “soup of the day” than a savory dinner entreé special, Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special lacks the crackle of imagination and sheer awe befitting of its genre. Watching the film, it’s abundantly clear that the young auteur who gave us the masterpiece Mud has a soft spot for iconic science fiction narratives and the visionary directors who gave them cinematic life. Operating like a hybrid of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brad Bird’s recent Tomorrowland and a dash of J.J. Abrams’s Lost for its plot masking, this latest entry from Nichols presents the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy on the run with his father following the government’s discovery of Alton’s cataclysmic and potentially world-threatening powers. Midnight Special’s stellar cast is well equipped to derive as much fictitious juice as possible to make this story quasi-believable, but even with the competence of both direction and acting I was struggling to find something — or someone — to care about.
This time around, science and faith aren’t on opposite ends of the morality scale – they’re equally antagonistic! Midnight Special wastes no time dropping us headfirst into chaos: Roy (Michael Shannon) and his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), kidnap Roy’s son, Alton, from a Texas ranch run by a religious cult that worships the boy and his supernatural abilities. Led by the pious yet calculating Father Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the cult raised Alton as one of their own, viewing him as a vessel from God from whom they can extract divine foresight to prepare them for an imminent “judgment day.” Able to deliver visions of clarity by transferring light from his eyes to those of an intimate gazer’s, Alton winds up creating a whole new doctrine for the Third Heaven Ranch. When sermons influenced by Alton’s cryptic messages start revealing classified government secrets – up to and including access to nuclear-based technologies and satellites – the FBI steps in to seize Alton and investigate any potential homeland threats posed by Meyer’s cult.
Meyer himself employs seedy backwater tactics to retrieve Alton, hiring a pair of reluctant bounty hunters to do his dirty work for the sake of mankind as deemed by “God’s will.” The film then becomes one giant chase movie with a few genre thrills and grand revelations thrown in for appropriate measure. The movie’s visuals are often hit and miss — the grandeur of the final moments of Midnight Special might cause some to gasp in total amazement, though the feeling of “been here, seen it all before” sets in too often to truly be bowled over. The sound design, meanwhile, is perhaps the best effect of all, utilized as a means of exaggerating panic and adding stark contrast to the decades of tranquility these rural Southern areas have peacefully felt up until now. Nichols is able to effectively alarm audiences by withholding so little of the movie’s secrets until the final act – every action Alton makes throws you completely off-guard, leaving you genuinely terrified to see what will follow in the oncoming moments of pandemonium.
Despite being a film firmly grounded in familial themes and the parental sacrifices that come with such relationships, Midnight Special spends so much of its time running away from concrete characterizations and interpersonal connections that matter. In fact, Alton seems more connected to NSA agent Paul Sevier (played by the ingenious Adam Driver) than any member of his immediate family; Sevier’s youthful curiosity and open-mindedness despite a conflict of interest makes him by far the most intriguing character in the film. Driver’s attempts to inject some levity into the ultra-serious script provide much-needed respite to all the somber melodrama. The brilliant actor just cannot be stopped nor should be since he’s able to elevate every film he’s in by ensuring its human core remains totally intact.
Michael Shannon is laser-focused on the job at hand playing a father who knows he has everything to lose but still wants what’s best for his son: a life and possibly a new place to explore his powers without societal intervention or judgment. Shannon’s imposing nature has often been a detractor when it comes to connecting to the characters he plays, but in Midnight Special it’s his giant heart that steamrolls over everything and more than earns our sympathies. It’s just a shame Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Joel Edgerton can’t seem to rise to the aforementioned actors’ level since they’re dealt so little in the character nuance department. As the mother of Alton, Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah is not introduced until deep into the film, her fierce loyalty and love more a given than something Dunst is able to add to the limited role.
There also could have been a fascinating underlying homosexual subtext between Edgerton’s Lucas and Shannon’s Roy. Their relationship could have tackled suppressed male-on-male emotion in a social realm entrenched with masculinity, but instead Nichols took the more commercial route by writing Lucas as though he’s a stand-in for the audience, knowing this perilous journey will inevitably lead to something larger than himself. If I wanted to see a “skeptic versus believer” dichotomy go down, there’s always the better option of binge-watching The X-Files on Netflix. Finally, Lieberher is unquestionably a mature, talented young actor but I was disappointed by how little Nichols and Lieberher relied on childlike tendencies to emphasize the traumatic toll this experience could have on a young boy. It seemed that Alton was always prepared for whatever opposing force came his way, and even when his health appeared to decline you never truly doubted Alton’s total control of the dire situation. I’m unsure if this is a characterization deficiency or the way Lieberher was directed by Nichols, but the “chosen one” angle is not the way to go about corralling support for your protagonist in this type of story setting.
In sum, Midnight Special is all bark and no bite, visually and audibly superb when need be but has a difficult time latching moviegoers to its narrative cause. Jeff Nichols should be lauded for experimenting in a genre outside of his directorial norm, though I do hope that next time he attempts science fiction he’ll make a more involving script in which its complexities add to the journey and not stymie it. Impeccably constructed but more forgettable than you’d expect, Warner Bros.’ Midnight Special hits theaters nationwide this Friday, March 18th. Make sure to check out the mysterious trailer below…