A man and his extraordinary son flee across America to a fateful meeting.
Jeff Nichols is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, despite only releasing four features over the last eight years. He’s done intense drama in Shotgun stories, genre-tinged thriller in Take Shelter and coming of age poetry in Mud, and now he has his first studio film in Midnight Special.
I was somewhat worried about the move to working with a major studio like Warner Bros and there are signs that the transition wasn’t easy for the writer/director, but the film is still well worth seeking out for sci-fi fans.
It’s about a very special boy called Alton (Jaedan Lieberher) who has been kidnapped from a strange cult by his biological father (Michael Shannon). This leads to a chase from government forces and curious scientists and stories about the boy start to emerge.
Midnight Special makes no secret of its sci-fi trappings, there’s none of the subtlety here of Take Shelter. That makes the film more obviously appealing to a larger market but also that little bit less interesting. There are some seriously strange things going on with this kid, and it’s all a bit on the nose.
That does give Nichols the chance to test his skills with some large scale set pieces, little bubbles of action that are well staged and a solid mix of tension and payoff. This isn’t a 100 million dollar blockbuster but the scale of what is shown is still impressive, right up to the ending.
I’d like to say the story matched this technical excellence but it just didn’t grab me. It’s all a bit basic and familiar, feeling especially reminiscent of John Carpenters underrated Starman from 1984. The references to Spielberg are fairly appropriate but there’s little of the sense of wonder of that director at the height of his powers.
The ending too feels a little slight, building in a way that’s fairly beautiful to behold but also rather obvious. One element that’s missing is a real emotional pull, mostly because the father son relationship doesn’t feel that strong. These characters are just on a narrative path, they don’t feel motivated or compelled for any another reason.
Which isn’t to say Midnight Special is a bad film, there are some nicely eerie moments and sci-fi ideas to be found, as well as decent performances from the likes of Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver – who definitely thinks he’s in a Spielberg film. And David Wingo’s score is wonderfully haunting. It just feels a little basic, even disappointing, in light of Nichol’s other work to date.