“Midnight Special” Movie Review


     Writer/director Jeff Nichols sets his entire new film, “Midnight Special”, within a shroud of mystery, never fully explaining what exactly the audience is witnessing.  Nichols, just four years removed from his outstanding film “Mud”, returns with the kind of offering which is likely destined to be divisive amongst movie goers, some of which will expect more details played out on screen, while others will be satisfied with what has to be considered a thinking man’s science fiction film.  Though, the narrative and subject matter have no resemblance to them at all, as I watched “Midnight Special”, thoughts of Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca” and Nolan’s “Interstellar” entered my mind.  Some may also conjure images of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” as well, but one thing is certain.  Nichols has created one of the most original and thought provoking science fiction works I have seen in quite some time, but the slow burning nature and downtrodden tone holds it back from being the kind of truly memorable film people will talk about for decades.

     “Midnight Special” begins with a sequence that will prove to be key in the overall pace of the story, in which we first meet a very special boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who at first appears to be just another quirky little fellow.  Roy (Michael Shannon), who is Alton’s dad, and Lucas (Joel Egerton), said to be an off duty State Trooper, quickly leave a hotel room before dawn, seemingly in a hurry to get some where.  The television in the room features a news story about them where claims of an abduction have been reported and the two men’s photos are prominently displayed.  The clerk at the front desk is watching the report as she sees them leave the parking lot, meaning the authorities won’t be far behind.  Nichols never really needs to have his characters tell us anything by way of dialogue, since the way he constructs his scenes are full of  visual clues which give the audience exactly what information he wants us to know at the moment.  Is there anything better in the movies today than a filmmaker treating the audience with intelligence?

     Alton, who looks to be not unlike any other boy his age, sports a pair of blue swimming goggles to go along with shooting range quality ear muffs and always has a flashlight at the ready.  He may be sensitive to both light and sound, but we don’t really know why.  But there are also plenty of the hallmarks which indicate he does a lot of things a boy his age likes to do.  He’s curious to a fault.  He reads comic books and wonders aloud what “Kryptonite” is as he scans through the latest “Superman” adventure.  But there are also strong indicators he is not human, as Nichols includes early scenes where Alton’s eyes light up, causing objects around him, namely the house they are in, to literally bust at the seams.

     It’s certain Roy and Lucas are intent on getting him somewhere important.  We also know by way of a short sequence at the beginning of the film that two separate entities are after him as well.  When the FBI raids Calvin Meyer’s (Sam Shepard) ranch, a religious compound where Roy and Alton previously lived, it becomes clear both the federal government and Meyer will go to great lengths in order to gain custody of Alton, the latter of which is willing to use brutal force if necessary.  From the government’s perspective, they know Alton is special after discovering his ability to decipher classified and encrypted military codes deemed impossible to crack.  Meyer and his people see Alton as their savior and believe he was sent from God.  With both groups proving to have plenty of motivation to find him, the question then becomes where is Roy and Lucas taking Alton?  Is he of this world or is he from another?

     An issue likely to be had with Nichol’s film is the consistently somber mood each and every character finds themselves in virtually every scene.  Even the appearances of Adam Driver (“Girls”) as a government analyst named Paul Sevier and Paul Sparks (“House of Cards”) as Agent Miller, the FBI’s lead Special Agent on the case, do nothing to lighten up the proceedings, as everything remains grim and dead serious for the entire film.  Of course, there is serious business at hand, but with characters that include a father who will do anything for his son, and a mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who would do the same, the script is devoid of the kind of light hearted moments you might expect from a story like this.  Here, the connection is shown through the intensity of the situation, rather than the traditional examples of love that would come from a mother or father.  I’m not here to say that was the wrong approach, but it certainly might rub people the wrong way and halt the film from achieving the kind of success a film like “E.T.” enjoyed.

     In similar fashion to “Interstellar”, “Midnight Special” attempts to explore the notion of parallel universes or people who live along side of us in a separate dimension.  Nichols is operating under the assumption that those who might find themselves caught within a dimension not their own, may possess incredible powers unlike anything we have ever seen.  This is the central exploration of the film and it is also where it succeeds the most, giving the audience plenty to think about once they leave the theater.  Some will likely leave disappointed since the film leaves the big action sequences on the cutting room floor, instead choosing to ask plenty of questions by way of several strong characters, but allowing the answers to be doled out in small portions as the film moves into its third act.  Overall, “Midnight Special” isn’t as strong of a film as “Mud”, but Nichols certainly proves here he is a masterful storyteller with plenty more to offer in the future.  GRADE: B