Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature and his first attempt at a (comparatively) big budget film that might have some mainstream appeal. His previous films were small character dramas and that DNA is still present here. Like Take Shelter, the movie stars Michael Shannon dealing with a supernatural problem. This time however, the question isn’t “Is it real?” but rather “What does this mean?” and “How do we prevent others from destroying it?”. Shannon plays a dad hiding from the police with Joel Edgerton (The Gift) as he takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a special location. We soon learn that Alton has supernatural powers evidenced by the beams of blue light that shoot out of his eyes. He is able to tap into radio frequencies, pull down satellites, and cause earthquakes. Their mission is to get him to Florida before something happens and before the government, believing him to be a weapon, finds them.
The clear influence here is John Carpenter’s Starman. Like that movie, this is a chase that is more interested in sentiment than science. The film manages to convey the love Alton’s parents have for him by contrasting them with others who only view him as a messiah or future destruction. They care for Alton the boy, not the supernatural being. This also serves to increase the stakes and the tension throughout. Lieberher is particularly believable as Alton. He shows the unnaturally calm confidence of someone who fully understands the situation which makes his simple lines seem profound. Yet, he still betrays his youth in the way he needs his parents for support. The music also recalls Carpenter’s signature scores and a slow piano melody transitions the mood from frantic chase to solemn duty. Even the special effects are homage. The blue beams of light mimic the glows of the sliver spheres in Starman. This along with other flourishes are deliberately old fashioned but never become garish or distracting.
Nichols wisely chooses to obscure many details of the plot. Background information including how Alton was born, how he grew up, and the full scope of what his powers can do are either only hinted at or largely ignored. The audience, as well as the characters, are left wondering what led to his current state. The time period is muddled too. Shots prominently feature CRT televisions and few modern gadgets are shown to prevent dating the film. In doing so, Nichols has edited out the exposition that bogs down many other science fiction films (see Interstellar) and focuses on the heart of the story – a family trying to save their son. That is, until the ending.
How the film closes may leave viewers unsatisfied. Up to that point, the cryptic details heightened the intensity, but as the film reveals itself the suspense is quickly deflated. The ending may prove too literal for some wanting something closer to 2001 and noticeably undermines the mystery that preceded it. Still, the sense of wonder and hidden potential present in the film create ample tension and intrigue to entice.