May 3, 2016

Midnight Special is Sweet and Suspenseful Sci-Fi Fun

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Contrary to its title, which sounds like a menu item from a 24-hour restaurant, Midnight Special has to do with aliens, supernatural powers and fatherly love rather than featured desserts or entrées. What should catch your eye about this baby is that it is directed by Jeff Nichols, the Arkansas-based filmmaker who is one of the foremost emerging voices in American independent cinema. In the past few years, he has directed Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, quite an impressive roster. Midnight Special is his first studio film, and Nichols avoids the curse of the big budget by keeping his story firmly attuned to character, spending only peanuts where studio money is concerned ($18 million) and relying on his trusty Michael Shannon, a collaborator in all of his previous films. There’s a dramatic tendency for successful independent filmmakers to go SFX crazy when they have bigger tools in their toolbox, but Nichols proves that no matter how many toys he has at his disposal, his understanding of the fundamental principles of storytelling remains intact.

This is demonstrated when Nichols opens the film in media res, a technique that may have some viewers running to catch up, but one that I greatly appreciate. I’d much rather have to play catchup than be spoon-fed exposition from the start. There’s an immediate lingering aura of suspense as Nichols brings to our attention a Branch Davidian-like cult led by Sam Shepard, who are seeking out a young child whom they believe to be a messiah. The child in question, eight-year-old Alton (the extraordinary Jaeden Lieberher), is the son of Roy (Michael Shannon) and Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), two former members of the cult who are fleeing with Alton, aided by Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Meanwhile, an FBI agent (Adam Driver) interviews members of the cult while growing sympathetic towards Alton and his family.

Why do the FBI and the cult have such a vested interest in Alton? He’s an otherworldly child with supernatural abilities. Once the little boy takes his goggles off and puts his comics down, he can spout rays of light from his eyes as powerful as those of the sun. He can trigger explosions and meteorite showers and is making contact with his alien brethren who are on their way to fetch him. He’s also possessed of an uncommon calm and wisdom that Lieberher articulates flawlessly, recalling Henry Thomas as Elliott from E.T. While we’re on the subject of Spielberg, though the film has many influences — Carpenter and Frankenheimer to name a few — the most easily identifiable is Close Encounters. But look closer and you’ll see traces of the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Here Nichols blends his southern comfort-style storytelling with tropes of one of the most famous cinematic bards, known for his sense of awe and warm-heartedness. Both are present on screen.

There’s a little bit of corniness at the end as the film approaches its sentimental climax,

meant to elicit the Spielbergian wonder of a character on screen gazing deep off into the distance at an awesome sight. Nichols is more apt at handling the nuances of character and pacing his narrative economically. Instead of piling on the twists and turns (although there are a few good jumps in your seat throughout), he prefers to explore subtleties in performance from his great cast. Alton is kidnapped and captured by the FBI, only to be set free again shortly thereafter, and you might wonder what the point is, but with actors this good, it’s difficult to protest. The film strikes its most enjoyable pitch during its first half hour or so, which plays like a tense road trip as two outlaws go on the lam with contraband that happens to be a supernatural child. Any fans of Nichols’ Take Shelter will know that the director is talented at creating this sort of coiled atmosphere with only the slightest cuts, inserts and suggested ideas.

The emotional core that holds everything together is the affectionate relationship between Michael Shannon’s devoted father and his unearthly son. Just like we bought into the relationship between a little boy and a pudgy alien who likes Reese’s Pieces, we buy the quasi-outlandish concept of a father protecting his boy who has the power to summon interplanetary civilizations into being. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton tells his father, knowing he has wisdom beyond his years. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” says Roy. “That’s the deal.” Underneath the sci-fi lies a poignant story about parental responsibility.