This decade has seen a significant increase in what can only be described a “prestige genre,” a Sci-Fi or Fantasy film that is treated as serious drama and, usually, with a distinctly more artistic vision than traditional commercial fare. Obviously, these types of pictures are not completely new, but the recent critical and often box office success of this subgenre with “Looper,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Snowpiercer,” “Ex Machina” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” is noteworthy. Jeff Nichols, whose impressive debut “Take Shelter” toyed with unexplainable happenings, has another picture to add to that list, “Midnight Special.”
The thriller, which screened at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival and at SXSW last week, centers on a familiar genre storyline: a hero tries to protect a young child with amazing powers (usually messiah like in some way) from all sorts of conspiratorial forces (secret organizations, government agencies, etc.) that mean to use him or her for their own nefarious intentions. In this case, Roy (the consistently impressive Michael Shannon) has enlisted the help of an old childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), to free his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult and transport him to a mysterious location where something world changing will occur.
Alton, who isn’t even a teenager yet, has an increasing number of abilities tied into connecting to electronic networks or devices such as, in one fantastic sequence, diverting a satellite in proper orbit and directing it to crash into the ground. That’s one reason why Roy is having to protect Alton not only from their religious sect who desperately want him back (the group believes Alton will protect them during the upcoming apocalypse) but the U.S. government who were alerted to the boy’s abilities after he naively used his powers to access top secret information. Along the way they meet up with Sarah (a solid Kirsten Dunst), Anton’s mother who left the ranch years before to help set up an escape plan for her son. If some of these plot points sound like predictable elements in a Hollywood tentpole you’d be spot on except Nichols has no intention of making that sort of movie.
(And yes, there are somewhat obvious stylistic homages to John Carpenter’s “Starman” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Thankfully, they don’t distract from the proceedings that much.)
“Midnight Special” differs from so many other films in this genre in that Nichols is much more interested in the conflicting motivations of each character than over-the-top stunt set pieces. The “bad guys” are never portrayed as myopically evil and, during one particularly dramatic and tense scene, Nichols is willing to have the audience question their belief that Roy is morally the right man to be protecting Alton (a beat that smartly doesn’t pay off until much later). The government’s expert, Paul Sevier (a memorable Adam Driver), is also more interested in Alton from a scientific perspective than in harnessing him into some sort of weapon which is Roy’s biggest fear. Moreover, Alton’s abilities are grounded in as real a world as possible. The cult members may think Alton is the second coming, but he’s not shooting laser beams out of his hands or bringing back the dead.
Where “Special” loses its footing is after the big reveal in the third act. There is no doubt a jaded perspective at play here because it’s such a familiar trope, but the climax is not as awe-inspiring as Nichols clearly hoped it would be. It also doesn’t help that Dunst was part of a more memorable scene with similar thematic beats in Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and the unintended correlations to Brad Bird’s dismal “Tomorrowland” don’t help.
Then again, there are a number of moments when Nichols, Shannon, Edgerton and Lieberher simply leave you gasping. And that makes this chase worth the ride.
“Midnight Special” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.