FILM REVIEW - MIDNIGHT SPECIAL
Release Date: 8th April 2016
Running Length: 111 minutes
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Distributed by: Entertainment One
A kid’s film for grown-ups.
The marketing campaign surrounding Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special has been favourably low key. The publicity material shrewdly offers little to no information about the mysteries hidden inside. For the most part, the movie keeps this sense of mystery and we are left to surmise for ourselves what exactly is transpiring. But cracks start to appear when we find out the answers.
In a cold open, we find ourselves in a grimy motel room with cardboard covering the windows. A small boy in goggles is reading comics by torchlight under a blanket, while two shifty looking men armed with shotguns are preparing to make their escape under cover of darkness.
The child is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old with very special abilities. Alton can telekinetically control electronic devices, channel satellite signals and is prone to shooting a blinding telepathic light from his eyes. Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon) has rescued him from the doomsday cult where the boy’s prophesies have formed the basis of their beliefs. Alton’s messages have been channelled from top-secret government communications, bringing him to the attention of the NSA. With both the government and the cult in pursuit, Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) escort Alton to a mysterious set of co-ordinates where a world-changing event is due to occur.
Writer/director Nichols’ fourth feature is a kid’s film for grown-ups. Drawing heavily from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET the Extra Terrestrial, Midnight Special is heavily indebted to the classic movies of the 1980s but lacks the magic spark of Spielberg. The high concept had all the potential of a truly smart children’s movie that might have inspired future generations of young filmmakers, but it’s been buried under some ill-conceived choices.
The sparse action, minimal dialogue and restrained pace will alienate a younger audience, while the fantastically outlandish climax will prove too much for most adults. It mines the same apocalyptic paranoia as Nichols’ other work, but where 2011’s Take Shelter left some questions on the nature of fantasy versus reality unanswered, Midnight Special abandons all sense of mystery and goes all out in a fantastical resolution. These elements would have been best left to the imagination. With a slightly different approach and a little ambiguity it could have been a different story altogether.
When all is said and done, Midnight Special is an interesting tonal experiment that falls between two stools. It makes for an incredibly frustrating watch, but Nichols’ reputation as an intelligent, original voice are still intact.