There are many science-fiction movies that owe an enormous debt to the early sci-fi work of Steven Spielberg, but Midnight Special is one of the few that manages to attain as much power as those works. The reason is simple: while director Jeff Nichols openly uses Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. (not to mention John Carpenter's Starman) as sources of inspiration, he has no interest in actually being Spielberg. Nichols has a unique, distinctive voice, and he holds fast to that voice even during moments that feel like fairly blatant variations on things we've seen before. He offers a fresh take on a familiar story, wrapping the tale around a remarkably potent emotional core.
One of the most immediately striking things about the film is that it throws us right into the middle of an ongoing story and sends us looking for clues that might help us catch up. We learn that a child named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, Aloha) has been kidnapped by a man named Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter). We meet Roy, and discover that he and his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton, Warrior) are willing to go to extremes to keep the child safe. We learn that the boy was previously the adopted son of cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, Mud), and that the federal government is launching a massive search for the child. There are countless unanswered questions right off the bat, and we pay close attention to the characters in search of answers: who are these people, what are they trying to accomplish and who should we be rooting for? And why does everyone seem convinced that they're racing against the clock?
Eventually, a few pieces start coming together. It seems that Alton has some powerful, possibly supernatural abilities, and that those abilities inspired the formation of Calvin's cult. Those abilities also come with serious side effects: the boy has to stay out of sunlight at all times, and his health is starting to decline. We also discover that Roy is Alton's biological father, and later we're introduced to Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man), his biological mother. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, and everyone seems certain that a great deal is at stake: Roy and Sarah think the boy's life is in danger, the government is worried about some major national security breach and the members of the cult seem convinced that an apocalyptic event is just around the corner.
Like all of Nichols' previous films, this is a movie that spotlights ordinary people of rural America facing extraordinary circumstances. Despite the film's sci-fi trappings and wilder plot elements, the film feels of a piece with the rest of the director's work. The characters in his films almost never feel like conventional movie “types,” but like real people who have rich, complicated lives outside the window of time we're looking in on. Midnight Special leaves plenty to our imagination, but it also does plenty to stoke our imagination: there are so many small moments that suggest so much. It's not difficult to imagine the early days of Calvin Meyer's cult, or the more turbulent days of Roy and Sarah's marriage, or the countless hours of research NSA operative Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has done, or the reaction Lucas must have had when Roy asked for his help.
The performances are largely essays in understatement, as the actors follow their director's approach of trying to do more with less. The result is a film that often feels a bit more muted than other movies of its type, but also a film that manages to generate moments of extraordinary emotional power. All of the lead actors have demonstrated elsewhere that they can kill a big monologue if they're required to, but here they seem to have been cast for what they can do with their faces: Shannon's tense fatigue, Dunst's regretful concern, Edgerton's cautious skepticism, Driver's intelligent curiosity.
As for the boy himself? He's a bit of an enigma. Most of the time, he seems like a perfectly ordinary, innocent kid... until he has another of his seizures, beams of light shoot from his eyes and you're reminded that he may not even be of this world. The wide variety of reactions the boy's powers inspire occasionally transforms the film into a thought-provoking meditation on faith. If Christ or Buddha or Mohammed were to suddenly appear and start performing all sorts of miracles, it wouldn't suddenly unite humanity, because we would find all sorts of different ways to interpret it. So it is with young Alton, whose abilities inspire multiple strains of religious zealotry, wary disbelief and scientific inquiry. Nichols never regards any of these people with condescension, but with empathy. People hurt each other, but there aren't really any villains in this story... just a lot of different folks trying to do the right thing (though sometimes in a troublingly misguided way).
The film is a mystery wrapped in a chase film wrapped in a sci-fi drama, and it's a lot of other things, too. Nichols has a lot to say, but he leaves plenty of room for viewers to explore their own trains of thought. Given the way the characters in this film respond to Alton, it seems appropriate that Midnight Special is a film designed to inspire a lot of reactions. Personally, I found the film most affecting as a parable about parenthood... more specifically, as a parable about letting go of a child. I thought about my young son, and about the fact that while I am tasked with taking care of him for the moment and loving him always, he ultimately belongs to the future, not to me.
“You don't have to worry about me,” Alton tells Roy.
“I like worrying about you,” Roy replies.
It's such a simple exchange, but it says so much. Later, a version of that conversation is whittled down to something even more spare: a brief non-verbal exchange that contains an ocean of feeling. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it is communicating with us on a wavelength of pure emotion. It will undoubtedly leave some baffled and others frustrated, but if you're on that wavelength, the film is an intensely moving experience. This is another great work from one of America's great filmmakers.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Year: 2016