In a few years, when some website not entirely unlike this one puts together a “10 Best Sci-Fi Movies You Might Have Missed” list, Midnight Special is gonna be on there.
But before that happens, I’ll recommend that fans of sci-fi see it right now. Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) has just arrived on Blu-ray and most VOD platforms. The film is about Alton, a young boy with mysterious powers who must go on the run with his dad (Michael Shannon) to escape the clutches of the FBI and a potentially dangerous cult. Along for the ride are a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst).
1. Sights and Sounds
What becomes apparent after the first few scenes of this film is that writer and director Jeff Nichols isn’t putting any priority on exposition. If you skipped reading the film’s synopsis, you’re gonna be wondering just what the hell is happening for a bit. Nichols wants the viewer to be dropped into the scenario and swept up in the mystery.
So instead of telling the audience immediately what’s going on, the film is focused on two things: wowing you with striking images and placing you in the story with characters who aren’t sure exactly what they’re dealing with. It’s a potent combination, and the film’s preference for visual storytelling is enhanced by just how darn good it looks. Fans of Spielberg and John Carpenter will find a lot to like when they look at Midnight Special. And the score, composed by David Wingo, recalls the ominous synths of Brad Fiedel (The Terminator) and again, John Carpenter.
2. The Performances
I mentioned earlier that the film is lean on exposition, but it’s also quite lean on character. Michael Shannon never does bad work. But his character in the film, Roy, is a determined man of few words. Lucas, his childhood friend and partner in crime, is a much more developed character with a short but strong backstory. Joel Edgerton (Black Mass) plays Lucas with a quiet focus and a strong conscience. As a police officer, he’s torn between being a federal fugitive to support Roy and Alton and upholding the law. The role is Edgerton’s best work in years.
Also doing great work is Adam Driver (Kylo Ren!), who plays a dweeby NSA analyst assigned to track Alton’s movements across Texas and Louisiana. Driver’s character is the total newcomer in the scenario, and through him, we learn a lot about Alton’s abilities and the cult that believed those abilities foretold the coming apocalypse. Kirsten Dunst, playing Alton’s biological mother, is a welcome face in the largely male cast. She also joins Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks and the young Jaeden Lieberher in a steel-solid group of performers.
3. The Effects
Despite having a relatively low budget, Midnight Special has terrific effects. The work done to bring Alton’s powers to the screen is at once restrained and beautiful, recalling E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Starman. Alton’s signature glow creates beautiful anamorphic lens flares and lights his body from within, revealing the bones in his arms, hands, and fingers. When Alton grows sickly and weak, his face is digitally thinned and the effect is alarmingly real.
In one jaw-dropping action sequence, a satellite falls out of orbit, breaks up, and rains fiery debris down onto a gas station. The pieces of the satellite shatter and spray across the concrete, leaving vicious scorch marks. And the climax of the film goes somewhere absolutely mind-blowing. I hesitate to describe it as an effects film, but the effects used help to create an effortless sense of wonder.
While it may be too mysterious and scantly plotted for some, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is one of the best sci-fi films of 2016. It’s available on home video right now, do yourself the favor of seeing it!