There is something nice about seeing a small science fiction film, so full of wonder and magic, that it almost makes up for all the Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich special effects extravaganzas that we are subjected to. Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is such a film, and along with last year’s Ex Machina by Alex Garland I’d like to believe we are on a new wave of smart and heartfelt science fiction movies. Many directors have tried to capture the awe and mystery of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even his more whimsical E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, J.J. Abrams certainly gave it a shot with Super 8, none quite hit the mark but Midnight Special is easily the closest.
Midnight Special begins with an Amber Alert being issued for eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who is believed to have been abducted by one Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). What the authorities don’t know is that Roy is the boy’s biological father and that they are on the run from a religious cult known simply as The Ranch. Along with Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) this small group must cross America, to some mysterious coordinates, before the cult tracks them down. The cult’s leader is Calvin Meyer (Sam Sheppard), who had raised the boy as his own, and desperately wants him back at all costs, but what is so special about Alton? Well it seems he is able to speak in tongues, which Calvin had integrated into his sermons, and they all believe that if Alton is with them they will be spared when the coming Rapture happens.
The government are also very interested in Alton as the sermons he’s been “dictating” contained classified government information. The F.B.I. swoops in to interrogate the members of The Ranch to find out how they came by this info, but Roy and Alton are long in the wind, on a dark and scary road trip. The more we learn about Alton the more intrigued one gets; he constantly wears goggles and at night wears sound suppressor earmuffs (a strange fashion statement to say the least), but it’s when he rips a spy satellite out of orbit that we start to really get a grasp on just how different Alton is. It’s this very strangeness that brings NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) in on the case, and Driver is clearly stepping into the shoes of Francois Truffaut from Close Encounters.
This is not a fun road trip, with religious nuts and the full weight of the American government hunting them, our little bands seems quite out of their depths. They eventually do hook up with Alton’s biological mother, Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), and surprisingly she doesn’t reveal that she was knocked up by God or probed by aliens. So what is Alton’s story? Where did his powers come from and where do the co-ordinates that were buried in those sermons lead to? The answers to this may not satisfy all viewers, as it’s left purposely vague, but the movie isn’t about the destination but the journey itself, and the decision to focus the narrative mostly through the eyes of concerned father Roy (who is certainly a better dad than Richard Dreyfus’s Roy was in Close Encounters) makes this a unique film. Both Roy and Sarah clearly love their son and they are terrified that all this weirdness is going to lead to them losing their son.
Though this movie will be classified as a science fiction movie, and rightly so, it’s more about the responsibility of parenting and an overzealous government. Now I’ve compared Midnight Special to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind but it actually has more in common with Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain than it does its big budget brother. They are both road trips with decidedly twisty endings.
The biggest flaw is the cult itself, which consists mainly of cardboard caricatures designed to simply force our heroes into action, but that’s just a quibble and overall this is an excellent flick. This is certainly a movie that fans of the genre should check out, though it isn’t without flaws the pluses easily outweigh them.