Among the big blockbuster sci-fi films of the past 12 months, there have been a few smaller films that have proven to standup to the giants of the genre. Ex Machina was a surprise hit as it blended sci-fi and psychology and Z for Zachariah smartly refreshed the post-apocalyptic film. With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols tries to put a fresh spin on the great sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, wherein the characters are trying to reach a mysterious destination amidst a government conspiracy. While he succeeds in some aspects, the revelations might not be enough for those who patiently waited for something mind-blowing.
Much like Nichols’ earlier work, Take Shelter, a film about a man succumbing to apocalyptic delusions, he holds his cards firmly against his chest, never really giving the audience a hint at all as to what might come. This would normally work if we were not already thrown into the middle of a story as two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) smuggle Roy’s son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) across the country to some unknown location. Alton has powers that are not exactly explained: the sun is a concern, he can control and hear radio waves, and has some form of telekineses. So with the FBI on their backs, they shuttle him from one safe house to the next.
With not a lot ever revealed to the audience, little bits of dialogue are key to figuring out the overarching storyline. A religious cult, from which Roy has taken Alton from (he was his biological father but more or less kidnapped by the leader of the cult) plays into the first half of the film and is never mentioned once the real action starts. As the film progresses, the audience has to do more work than I think is necessary for a film of this caliber. They have to even piece together why Lucas is with Roy and Alton in the first place, because even at the end of the movie, it still isn’t clear. Little irritations like this make it feel like Nichols wanted to make his own version of Lost in raising a dozen and a half questions without ever answering any—and he succeeds in that aspect, but I’m pretty sure not too many people were happy when the show ended.
While it is notably less about the performances than in Take Shelter, and even Nichols’ most recent Mud, Shannon is superb as a father who will do anything to rescue his son. The other performances, particularly from Adam Driver as an FBI agent in charge of finding Alton, Edgerton, and Kristen Dunst, Alton’s mother, are suitable but nothing extraordinary. Perhaps the problem here lies in that it is simply not a character study like in Take Shelter, or a storyline that significantly relies on the performances like in Mud.
Special effects are used tastefully, but sparingly, as Nichols tries to subvert the genre. Yet, like I said earlier, none of the Alton’s powers are explained in their entirety. His hands and eyes glow, he can cause devastation and manipulate electronics, but the source of his power and even why he has them is never fully explained. So like the conclusion to Take Shelter, what we are given as an ending is perhaps enough for some, but for those who weren’t fully along for the journey already, it will prove to be cheap, unexplained, and unfulfilling.
With a few solid moments, set amongst a sluggish pace, Midnight Special is a film where you have to really love the small moments and be ok with a wholly ambiguous ending. In many ways Midnight Special is really like Lost: a sci-fi where explanations are rare and never enough, ultimately falling flat when it can’t live up to lofty expectations it tries to set up in all the mystery.