Sci-fi Thriller “Midnight Special” is an exhilirating chase towards a lackluster destination

Sci-fi Thriller “Midnight Special” is an exhilirating chase towards a lackluster destination

Writer-Director Jeff Nichols is a master of the slow burn.

From his break-out debut feature Shotgun Stories, to his critically acclaimed follow-ups Take Shelter (one of the best films of 2011) and Mud (one of my favourite movies of 2013), Nichols has proven himself to be adept at a kind of immersive storytelling that crescendos at a deliberate pace, stacking one tension-fueled scene after another until audiences are jolted with a satisfyingly electric climax they didn’t know they were headed towards. It’s a curious narrative choice to make for thrillers, but armed with an effective screenplay and capable performers, Nichols is able to make the slow burn a riveting journey worth going on. In fact, the build-up to the action is often the best part of his films. Midnight Special, Nichols’ first foray into mainstream science fiction, is no exception, for better or for worse.

The story of the film revolves around Roy (played by towering character-actor Michael Shannon) and his efforts to protect his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who appears to possess mysterious, otherworldly powers. With the help of his ex-military buddy Lucas (played by fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton), Roy and his son go on the run as they are hunted by two ominous forces seeking to exploit Alton’s special abilities: (a) A religious cult from which they escaped that believes Alton’s powers to be messages from God, and (b) the government, of course.

Michael Shannon being paternal in  Midnight Special

Michael Shannon being paternal in Midnight Special

On the surface, Midnight Special is essentially a sci-fi chase movie, and as evident from the confidently gripping opening scene that propels the film’s narrative down an exhilarating highway, Nichols’ laser-sharp instincts as a visual director all but assures the audience that they would be in for a riveting thrill ride. And a riveting thrill ride it turned out to be; whether the film sticks its landing however, is another question entirely.

This being his first studio film, and the friction between Nichols’ trademark “independent cinema” sensibilities and the film’s inclination for mainstream appeal is apparent on screen. He mostly manages to sustain the former, though, by sprinkling Midnight Special with poignant character moments in between the action, all of which are elevated by the film’s talented and committed cast. In fact, much of the film features lengthy close-ups of characters reacting to things. Frequent collaborator Shannon (the De Niro to Nichols’ Scorsese) has been involved in all of Nichols’ films, and to no one’s surprise, gives a dependably anchoring performance as a desperate father trying to protect his son. One could argue that Shannon has almost become a crutch for Nichols at this point; the man can act the hell out of any scene, and sell the hell out of any line of dialogue, no matter how clunky, and Nichols knows it. As Alton, Lierberher (St. Vincent) is perfectly serviceable as the McGuffin of the movie, and plays the precocious-kid-with-mysterious-powers-that-everyone-wants to-get-ahold-of trope well.

The rest of the cast do their best with the role they are given, and for the most part, it works: Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia, Elizabethtown) proves to be effective in a supporting role as Alton’s estranged mother Sarah, while rising star Adam Driver (Girls, The Force Awakens) provides some much needed levity as Paul Sevier, an NSA analyst tasked with tracking Alton down.

Lieberher  as Alton and  Dunst  as his mother Sarah, reacting to something batshit crazy in  Midnight Special

Lieberher as Alton and Dunst as his mother Sarah, reacting to something batshit crazy in Midnight Special

However, as the plot struggles to be both tightly focused and broadly epic at the same time, the narrative starts to lose steam and some characters get the short shrift when Midnight Special reaches its final act. Actor and playwright Sam Shepard is wasted in a thankless role as the leader of a cult who raised Alton and believes him to be their “savior” – an intriguing storyline that disappears halfway through the film. Meanwhile, Edgerton is gripping as Lucas, the “muscle man” of Team Alton, but despite the film’s hand-wavy explanation, the motivation for his undying loyalty to Roy and Alton never seem to be fully convincing.

Science fiction is at its best when it allows us to explore our own humanity and challenges the way we think about ourselves. At its core, Midnight Special is a deeply personal parable about faith and unconditional parental love. While many have compared the film to Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and while Spielberg influences are definitely present in the film, I find it to bear the most similarities with JJ Abrams’ Super 8. Like Super 8, Midnight Special is a director’s loving nod to 80s Spielbergian filmmaking with his own unique twist. And just like Super 8, Midnight Special concludes its captivating mystery with an ultimately underwhelming reveal, in which Nichols overplayed his hand by showing us too much and leaving too little to the imagination.

But to dismiss a Jeff Nichols film solely based on its lackluster ending would be depriving yourself of a truly unique cinematic experience. Bolstered by a mesmerizing score, stunning visuals and a talented cast, Midnight Special is a transportive and suspenseful thrill ride at the movies.

3.5 out of 5 Zissous

For Perth moviegoers, Midnight Special is currently screening at Luna Leederville and Luna XS

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