Increasingly, when people think about science fiction movies these days, they think about huge and bombastic franchise films. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such movies but that default mode of ‘bigger is better’ is starting to become synonymous with the genre. This is a great pity. Decades ago, plenty of filmmakers used a lighter touch with sci-fi material, letting the metaphors bubble organically to the surface and trying not to allow all the shiny trappings to overwhelm the ideas. Ironically, Steven Spielberg—creator of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.—was the one who started this blockbusterization of genre, making films that can stand with those sci-fi masterpieces more and more difficult to come by. Be thankful then for directors like Jeff Nichols who ground fertile paranormal premises in stark reality while never quite letting go of the classical techniques and understated tone that characterizes their non-genre work. With his latest film Midnight Special, Nichols wades into full-on fantastical waters after merely dipping a toe in them with his previous work Take Shelter. But, like all the best sci-fi filmmakers, he never forgets that his movie is about ordinary people, however extraordinary their circumstances.
The government, as represented by NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver doing an uncanny 90s-era Jeff Goldblum), is also after him because he somehow appears to have tuned into encrypted signals and the state secrets they carry.
Like Take Shelter, Midnight Special stars the great Michael Shannon as a father trying his best to deal with supernatural forces and their potentially apocalyptic fallout. Only, this time, the paranormal elements rear their head early and leave little room for interpretation. The film opens in medias res as Roy, played by Shannon, and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton, wound tight) watch a news broadcast about a missing eight-year-old boy named Alton Meyer. As it turns out, Meyer is with them in their shabby motel room, wearing an odd pair of goggles and reading vintage Superman comics. Roy is Alton’s father and is spiriting him away from a Christian fundamentalist cult that believes the boy to be a divine savior due to mysterious powers manifested early in the proceedings. He speaks in tongues, seems able to form psychic bonds with people, manipulates matter and energy. The government, as represented by NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver doing an uncanny 90s-era Jeff Goldblum), is also after him because he somehow appears to have tuned into encrypted signals and the state secrets they carry. The whole film is structured as one long and suspenseful chase down the neon-washed motels and highways of Texas and Louisiana, giving it a timeless and almost dreamlike feel.
It’s all very retro and reminiscent of the 80s genre classics this generation of directors grew up on – a bit of Starman here, a bit of E.T. there, a dash of Firestarter to round it all out…there’s a comforting familiarity to these sturdy setups that have passed the test of time. That said, Nichols always stops well short of being derivative, using the naturalist-realist feel he perfected in non-genre efforts like Shotgun Stories and Mud to shape this supernatural tale into something altogether distinctive. Aside from the slightly incongruous spectacle of the movie’s final minutes, Alton’s powers are demonstrated sparingly, punctuating and underscoring the human drama that is ultimately the point of it all. Where lesser filmmakers would play up Alton’s powers and use them to unleash havoc from beginning to end, Nichols focuses on the fallout of the paranormal Macguffin on his deeply relatable characters, all of whom are fleshed out by an array of empathetic performances. It works because it’s about the recognizable emotions of people you could imagine yourself being fond of, manifested via relationships and fears that are universal. At its heart, Midnight Special is about parents and their children. Roy and, later, Alton’s mother Sarah (played with sensitivity by Kirsten Dunst), are the embodiments of primal parental instincts – love, protection, the constant gnawing concern for a vulnerable being they would take a bullet for. Shannon, especially, exhibits endless depths, an illustration of the dual faces of tenderness and frightening determination that characterize a loving parent in sheltering mode. When he tells you he’s ready to shoot you to protect his child, you look into those cavernous eyes and you believe him. Roy, Sarah and the loyal Lucas are transporting Alton to an unknown destination for unknown reasons but it is strongly implied that some kind of transcendental experience awaits him there. But, in seeking to elevate their child to a place that’s potentially better than the one they themselves are accustomed to, Roy and Sarah are no different from any loving parent. They make the sacrifices so their child can move onwards and upwards and, at least as far as the parents are concerned, the dramatic stakes inherent to that struggle can get no higher.