We’re no strangers to sci-fi films. The majority of them are grand, with sweeping action and multi-layered plots. But sometimes, the beauty is in a film’s simplicity and writer and director Jeff Nichols gets that right in “Midnight Special.” Although the film can be very vague and includes certain aspects that aren’t needed in order to tell an engaging story, Nichols keeps the plot intimate and this is what ultimately makes the film worthwhile.
“Midnight Special” opens with the news broadcasting the alleged kidnapping of 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) by two men: Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The kidnapping has the FBI involved, investigating a Texas ranch/cult, headed by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Why is the FBI involved? Well, top secret coordinates have made their way into Calvin’s sermons and the entire ranch population is taken in for questioning. The case is so bizarre, that even NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is involved to help find Alton.
On the run, Roy and Paul stay low and while the news goes on about the kidnapping, Alton doesn’t seem very concerned about it, with his peculiar goggles firmly in place and a comic book in hand (Superman, which is a not-so-subtle nod to aliens). As Alton’s biological father, Roy knows that Alton is a special boy and there’s a lot at stake. Meeting up with Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), the four of them are on the run and on a mission to get Alton to safety no matter the cost.
Nichols, who also directed “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” relies heavily on uncovering the mystery of Alton. Why does he wear the goggles? Why can he only take them off in the dark? Where and why do his powers manifest themselves by way of light emanating from his eyes? Not all of these questions are answered, but Nichols enjoys dragging out the mystery while maintaining a tight-lipped and vague approach to everything else.
“Midnight Special” keeps things simple. There doesn’t seem to be thought behind the whys and hows. This is sometimes where the film flounders. Adam Driver’s character, for example, is used for a bit of comic relief, and to serve as the grounding point for the audience in these non-grounding events. But the use of the NSA and even, to some extent, the cult aspect, doesn’t really further along the plot except to make certain parts of the film more suspenseful. The film could have done without the rancher cult and still been able to maintain suspense and suspicion on the FBI’s part.
The strength of the film lies in the bond between Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher. It’s fairly easy to ascertain that, at the heart of the film, lies the relationship between father and son. No matter who, or what, Alton is, his father is hellbent on making sure that he is safe and gets to where he needs to go. Shannon is protective and can take extreme measures to ensure his son’s safety and it’s what keeps the film together, even in its most extraordinary and strange moments.
Alton’s powers are intriguing and there is a lot to appreciate about the fact that the plot and setting are very intimate. Nichols isn’t about making a grandiose kind of film with a flimsy plot. Instead, he uses the main characters as the centerpieces to a simple story. However simple and close-knit the characters and plot seem to be, there are aspects of the plot that feel empty. I don’t expect there to be answers to every question “Midnight Special” poses, but there’s something frustrating about the overall lack of detail that could have brought us just a bit closer to Alton and his journey. Regardless, Nichols’ sci-fi mystery stands strong enough on its own merits, but leaves a lot to be desired in the grander scheme of things.
There's something frustrating about the overall lack of detail that was needed to bring us just a bit closer to Alton and his journey. Regardless, Nichols' sci-fi mystery stands strong enough on its own merits.