In the aftermath of the disconcerting shockwave sent by the many film critics (myself included) who weren't too pleased with "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," sci-fi fans and superhero buffs are probably moping around their comic book and action figure shrines. "How could a movie about a superhuman who is hailed as a divine figure while the government breathes down his neck about how potentially dangerous he is be so bad?", some of them may be wondering. Well, had it not been squeezed in with two or three other movies that make up the misshapen monstrosity that is "Batman v Superman," it might have been a surprisingly thoughtful blockbuster.
This is part of the reason why "Midnight Special" is the film that sci-fi nerds need to see. I realize it is not a superhero movie at all, nor does it deserve blockbuster status, but the film does away with the visually driven aspects of science fiction in favor of what really makes the genre so treasured by moviegoers. Here, what Zack Snyder squandered as a subplot is stretched into a fascinating feature by filmmaking auteur Jeff Nichols, a director who understands that the real power of sci-fi comes not from how cool it looks, but how human it feels. "Midnight Special" isn't without a few instances of visual splendor (some are truly unforgettable), but like other genre classics, its real goal is to illustrate humankind's relationship with the unknowable and the unattainable.
Roy (Michael Shannon) has fled a religious cult with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses special abilities that set him apart from the rest of the human race. Accompanied by his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and later by Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy and his son are tailed by members of the cult who want their powerful savior back, as well the FBI, with Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) leading the search for the boy wonder.
Unlike the average chase movie, "Midnight Special" skips all the build-up and puts the audience right in the middle of the action, prompting viewers to fill in the gaps necessary for them to catch up with what Nichols has expertly plotted out. One could say that this is the chase viewers are actually meant to be engaged in, though there are some startling moments within the narrative that will surely have them on the edge of their seats.
The biggest mystery Nichols concocts is the nature of Alton's abilities. Without spoiling anything, there doesn't seem to be a limit to what Alton can do, as Nichols continuously unveils surprising demonstrations of Alton's power. Be the as it may, those who are too focused on figuring out how and why Alton does what he does are missing the point of his purpose in the story. I could go on for bit about how Alton is a manifestation of nearly everything that is beyond human understanding, but what ultimately matters is the emotional effect that he has on those who surround him, especially those who are dedicated to keeping him out of harm's way.
The driving force of "Midnight Special" is Roy's relationship with his son. Alton's influence on others, particularly Sevier (who Driver plays with a restraint that equals the ferocity of his performance in the new "Star Wars") as well as the cult that worships him, is quite mesmerizing, but it isn't as moving as the unbreakable bond he has with his father. Shannon effectively underplays the instinctive wariness that parents often exhibit when their children are unable to fend for themselves. Edgerton and Dunst match Shannon's caliber while bringing their own sensibilities to their respective characters. If there is a stand-out, it would have to be Lieberher, who really looks like something otherworldly; the blue goggles he wears accent his alien-like complexion.
"Midnight Special" isn't perfect; Nichols could have gotten away with solving its puzzles a bit more without sacrificing any sense of ambiguity. The climax may also leave some viewers baffled. Its higher-budget endowments initially feel out of place in this subtle piece of science fiction, but Nichols infuses it with an awe-inspiring grace that is too difficult not to admire. There is also a Spielbergian flavor to it all. Many will recognize similarities to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," but since we live in a world with too many Zack Snyders, throwing a dash of 80s-era Spielberg into the mix is never a bad idea. If this film is any indication, the stylings of Spielberg may, in fact, be a beneficial ingredient for filmmakers like Nichols looking to remind us why we love science fiction.