When Jeff Nichols introduced Midnight Special at this year’s SXSW, he commented on the Spielberg-like posters hanging all around Austin. People chuckled, acknowledging the fact that this was Nichols’ take on old-school Amblin, but after watching his “homage,” part of me doubts that Amblin lovers alike will appreciate Nichols’ signature slow-burn pacing.
Super 8, to me, is a hallmark Spielbergian throwback – Midnight Special is simply Nichols’ take on science fiction. One that drags and languishes, and never answers posed questions or clarifies an overall meaning. As viewers, we’re left to interpret a goggle-wearing child’s brightly lit adventure, but not everyone will enjoy the collective “Why?” when Nichols’ curtain draws closed.
The young Jaeden Lieberher stars as a special boy named Alton, who can intercept radio transmissions, and shoot beams of light from his eyes. His father, Roy (Michael Shannon), originally took him to a cult-like ranch, where he was raised by a faithful congregation, but plans change, and he breaks away from the rigid community.
With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy makes a break for coordinates Alton once spewed out (perceived as speaking in tongues), but he’s pursued by faithful followers and an FBI presence who wants Alton captured. On the lam, Roy speeds away in hopes of rescuing his son, as Alton’s powers evolve wildly along the way.
Nichols has made a name for himself through human storytelling (Mud, Take Shelter, and Shotgun Stories), so it’s unsurprising that Midnight Special comes in light on sci-fi action and heavy on Alton’s mysterious upbringing. The film itself is more a puzzle, as details come trickling in that we’re meant to piece together.
This is a story between father and son, with an inevitable introduction of wife/mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) later in the escapade. They’re not warriors. There’s no laser shoot-out or military ambushes (with adventure-type getaways). Nichols builds upon relationships that revolve around Alton’s gravitational force, which, again, shies away from that flashy Amblin feel (for comparison’s sake).
But, in relying completely on Alton’s mystery, Midnight Special feels poorly structured, and a bit too vague. We know Alton is gifted, but aside from Roy’s incessant need to keep pressing forward, we don’t really know what goal is to be achieved. Even when finality comes, Alton’s fate doesn’t bring comfort or understanding, and we’re left to mull over what the preceding two hours thematically uncover (like, how is this “special” boy the product of two human parents?).
As time presses on, the ranch becomes a distant, unexplained memory, and Alton’s powers remain intriguing only at face value. The introduction of other-worldly elements are structurally beautiful, but never profound. This is a smoldering ball of vivid ideas, but Nichols struggles to form something meaningful and meanders about without reason for far, far too long.
On a stronger note, all the actors involved are rather delightful. Michael Shannon’s talents need no introduction, and as a fatherly bodyguard, his cold dedication suits a man who needs few words to establish dominance. Joel Edgerton, as his buddy, pulls the same kind of antics, but sports a kinder friendship with Alton and lets a little feeling shine through besides Shannon’s accepting gazes. Dunst dresses as a fine mom, Adam Driver appears as a talky agent, and Lieberher shows a lot of spunk for an actor his age – but it’s not enough. Aside from Lieberher’s enlightened childhood role, these are all veteran talents who show their worth, but a dead air lessens their genre charisma to unfortunate degrees.
Midnight Special will absolutely be that late-night kind of watch that more patient viewers will praise, but certain audiences must prepare for dragging, dialogue-driven dramatics with little scripted insights. The film kicks off with Roy’s escape, and never looks back – for better or worse. We move forward with the characters, but without really knowing why. Again, some audiences may dig this minimalist, every-questioning approach, but others, like myself, will only find drawn-out acts of roof-shaking curiosity stuck in a story without clear, honest meaning. The acting impresses and score rings majestically, it’s just a shame Midnight Special becomes more a chore than exciting, wholesome adventure.
Midnight Special gets lost in its once-enchanting ambiguity, and delivers a sci-fi story with far too many questions and not enough gripping clarity.