Jeff Nichols has created a body of work steeped in the humanity of rural America. There is a decidedly southern sensibility to films like Shotgun Stories, Mud and Take Shelter. His stories are populated with people who live off the land or are tied to their physical surroundings for their very survival. The settings of Nichols’ films are characters unto themselves. He employs a cast of fewer characters, and the drama is told on a smaller scale. All of these elements combine to create a universality to Nichols’ work. These people are familiar to us. We see ourselves in them.
When it was announced that Nichols was working in the science fiction genre, it left many wondering if Midnight Special would be a departure from his previous work. Would it be a special effects spectacle? Would the conventions of the genre change Nichols’ style of film-making? How do you mesh intimate character drama with science fiction world-building? Unfortunately, it’s with mixed results.
In the opening scenes of the film, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) and his father Roy (Michael Shannon) are in a motel room. It’s clear they are on the run. They’ve put cardboard over the windows and tape over the peephole in the door. A television news show plays in the background, announcing the Amber Alert and resulting search for the boy. Roy and another man (Joel Edgerton) wonder if the Amber Alert was called in by “The Ranch”. This isn’t a kidnapping by a stranger. This isn’t even a kidnapping by a non-custodial parent. This is something stranger, more sinister.
In the first ten minutes, we know that Alton is a special young man. The government is interested in him, and The Ranch is trying to get him back. The two adults and the child are trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, and we’re not sure which of their enemies is worse. It feels like the moment in E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (1982) when the government agency swoops in and shuts down Elliott’s neighborhood, only it’s darker. We think it’s possible that Alton and his father could simply disappear, rendition-style.
All of Nichols’ considerable talent is on display. The graceful cinematography and tight editing are present and accounted for. The casting is pitch perfect, and the performances are excellent. But, there’s still something missing. It’s that humanity found in all his other films. And, the script is to blame for that.
For a film about parenthood, protecting children and the possibility of saying goodbye, Midnight Special is surprisingly emotionless. The plot mechanics and chase aspect of the film overwhelm the underlying relationships. Additionally, Alton remains a bit of a cypher due to the man-child nature of his character. He may be 10-years-old, but he’s smarter and wiser than all of the adults. So, the parent-child relationships aren’t touching. They’re more awkward and weird.
We live in an era where spoilers can’t be avoided. Social media and entertainment news disseminate spoilers that they don’t even seem to know are spoilers. Even the studios presume a certain amount of knowledge should be imparted to potential audience members. So, we are inundated with detailed trailers and plot-driven marketing campaigns. How much better would the third act of 10 Cloverfield Lane have played if the word “Cloverfield” hadn’t been in the title? It would have been a complete stunner.
So, for over a year, we’ve been hearing that Jeff Nichols was going to tackle a science fiction film. The poster for Midnight Special shows a boy with glowing otherworldly eyes, and the tag line is “He’s Not Like Us”. Just these small details render the big reveals of the film ineffective. We know going in that something extraterrestrial is at work. We just don’t know the details. If I had gone into this film completely cold, my opinion of it would likely be higher. Instead, he entertainment machine and the weak script combined to lessen its impact and left me thinking about how great Midnight Special could have been.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.