Midnight Special contains some of the best buildup and atmosphere modern sci-fi has to offer. The film is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s early outings, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It also calls to mind the works of Stanley Kubrick, Rod Serling, and other greats. At the same time, the movie always maintains writer/director Jeff Nichols’ own distinctive signature.
In Take Shelter, Nichols gave us an absorbing mystery that kept audiences guessing. In Mud, Nichols turned in a thoughtful, unconventional coming of age story. Midnight Special is kind of like a combination of his previous two films, but still manages to be a unique product. Nichols is truly one of our most promising and underrated filmmakers. With any luck, Midnight Special will help him to become a household name.
Michael Shannon gives yet another terrific performance as Roy, a father determined to protect his child at all costs. Young Jaeden Lieberher does equally gripping work as Alton, Roy’s son who possesses supernatural abilities. Almost always wearing goggles, Alton can discharge beams of light from his eyes like Cyclops from X-Men. That’s just one of the many extraordinary things Alton can do. Is this eight-year-old boy a god, an alien, or something else? Whatever he is, the government wants to find out.
Adam Driver, who you all know best for playing Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, finds himself in a very different role here as a NSA analyst searching for Alton. With the FBI hot on their trail, Roy and his son hit the road along with a state trooper named Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They’re eventually joined by Alton’s mother, played by Kirsten Dunst in one of her most emotive performances. On paper, all of these characters could be cheap, one-note stereotypes straight out of a Roland Emmerich picture. The actors all deliver fully fleshed out portrayals, however, in a narrative that feels surprisingly human.
Numerous science fiction films tend to analyze emotions rather than express genuine emotions. This isn’t the case with Midnight Special. The film doesn’t get bogged down by too much exposition or pretentious speeches that try to sound important. It doesn’t even rely too heavily on dialog in most instances, letting visuals and the strength of the performances tell the story. Nichols thus produces a film that’s largely driven by emotions, in addition to its compelling sense of mystery.
Of course a mystery can’t be complete unless it leads to a satisfying conclusion. Otherwise, we get something like The Forgotten. Fortunately, Midnight Special doesn’t disappoint with its final destination, which is beautiful, gripping, and really quite profound. Granted, some may be disappoint that the ending doesn’t resolve everything in a tidy package. On the whole, though, the film answers just enough questions while leaving just enough open to interpretations. It’s bound to raise plenty of interesting conversations, which is a sign of a very special film.