“This film explores how I feel about my son”, said writer/director Jeff Nichols in his introduction of his latest film, Midnight Special. A more emotionally honest take on a Spielberg style, sci-fi chase film, Midnight Special is an extremely personal film that explores the bond between parent and child through a thrilling, sometimes horrifying and harrowing sci-fi lens, evoking memories of Spielberg’s touchy-feely sci-fi of the 80s and 90s such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, without ever feeling like a clone. Midnight Special is minimalist sci-fi with a soul, the most apparent parallel probably lying with Superman, and perhaps the recent adaptation, Man of Steel – the desire to belong, being worshipped, being alienated and the pain of being nearly omniscient are things that Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent and Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton deal with in earnest – although the eight year old boy seems more clear of his purpose than the 33 year old Clark ever did across Snyder’s two Superman films.
Roy, played to subtle perfection by Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon (he made a point of this in the introduction, he will always cast this man), is on the run with his son Alton. One of the first things we see in the film is the amber alert for the supposedly ‘kidnapped’ boy, and the film takes its time peeling back the layers of intrigue from there, to extremely satisfying effect. Divulging much more would take away from the excitement, wonder and power of the film – the less you know going in, the better.
It becomes clear that the boy possesses superhuman powers, his strange connection with the world leaving him extremely, almost lethally sensitive to sunlight. The first time we see him is under a blanket, reading comic books through blue-tinted swimming goggles. The film ultimately leaves some questions unanswered and the mystery may unfold a little too slowly for some, but it definitely helps that all the actors involved do a fantastic job. Lieberher is a great actor, and makes the tried and tested cliche of the “all-powerful pre-pubescent child” and makes it entirely compelling again.
Kirsten Dunst’s character Sarah acts as a balance to Shannon’s more ferocious nature concerning the protection of his son, while bringing some fierceness of her own. The character appears refreshingly tender and kind in comparison to the comparatively grim Roy and Lucas (a pretty reliable Joel Edgarton) transporting Alton for the first third of the film. That said, Michael Shannon’s character is never uninteresting. Roy is fiercely protective of his son, and Nichols relishes in showing and not telling – showing us that this man would kill a state trooper in cold blood, so to keep their location hidden. It’s a morally confusing moment, and the first of many throughout the film as multiple factions conflict over differing interests in Alton.
The film’s minimalist nature extends to its direction and soundtrack; the cinematography is beautiful, really bringing out the horror, pathos and sense of wonder – but never gets too flashy or showy. Similarly great is Nichols’ long time collaborator David Wingo’s soundtrack, a simple yet rousing piano motif that plays from the beginning of the film, telling us pretty immediately that this is going to be a very different kind of chase film or sci-fi film – Nichols strips everything back to a minimum and the film is much more rewarding for it, always stylish without ever showing off too much.
Midnight Special is Nichols’ largest film yet, filled with plenty of supernatural mystery and sci-fi grandeur, but it remains grounded by the subtlety of the characters and the very high quality of acting, the intense chemistry and bond between father, mother and son. For those unfamiliar with the work of Jeff Nichols, it’ll seem strange and different, but one thing is for certain: Midnight Special is thrilling and touching from beginning to end.