It’s perhaps too rare for modern science fiction to instil a real sense of wonder and awe. Despite ballooning budgets and spiralling spectacle, it’s not that often that something comes along to really make your jaw drop. Thankfully, despite a couple of niggling flaws, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special does exactly that, again and again.
This is sci-fi in the vein of the ‘70s and ‘80s Amblin classics, complete with the sweet-natured kid at its centre, the broken family trying to do right by him, and the FBI agents in over their heads and making everything worse along the way.
Nichols’ script opens in media res, and the baffling process of trying to wrap one’s head around the rapidly advancing plot is a key part of the film’s early charm. Suffice it to say that the promisingly eerie Jaeden Lieberher is Alton, a pre-teen who’s definitely not your typical 11-year-old, and Michael Shannon is the desperate father taking him on the run. To say much more would only spoil the fun of figuring it out.
Shannon is his usual captivating self, his weathered face gripped by a sort of exhausted energy. Eyes darting, he brings to mind an animal on the run – panicked, desperate, running on sheer instinct. Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst make less of their parts, the latter in particular mostly restricted to looking concerned, worried, or both.
Adam Driver is also on hand, fresh from Star Wars, giving a nervy turn as the NSA agent at the forefront of the government investigation. He’s saddled with a couple of clunky lines (including one execrable mid-interrogation line that drops like a lead balloon), but overcomes them all in one wordless shot in a helicopter, one wavering hand conveying everything we need to know about his discomfort out in the field.
The tight family bond at its centre provides Midnight Special its heart, but it’s in the slow unveiling of Alton’s abilities that the film really finds its feet. Nichols holds back for as long as he can, building the mystery and momentum until a positively rapturous final act, which drops the dialogue and lets some seriously stunning visuals do the talking. It’s jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-seat stuff, without the need to level cities or plaster the screen with explosions, playing smartly with the experience of things just beyond our comprehension.
The film’s first half sets up some promising exploration of religion and cults that it ultimately doesn’t deliver on, setting up religious fervour as a natural response to the incomprehensible. By instead drawing back to the family dynamic, Midnight Special positions itself more squarely as a film more for the heart than the head, an emotional rather than cerebral experience.
In that it succeeds, abandoning religion but finding a rapture of its own sort. Midnight Special stands squarely on the shoulders of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and pulls off the trick of not looking small by comparison.
Words by Dominic Preston