Jeff Nichols delivers an intelligent piece of blockbuster filmmaking with Midnight Special, mixing super-powers with a thought-provoking family drama about facing the unknown
In a rundown motel room, as a television news anchor announces that a young boy has been abducted, two armed men give each other a nod to confirm it’s time to leave. The curtains are shut, the windows are blocked with cardboard and on the floor a boy sits under a sheet, wearing blue swimming goggles and reading comics by torch light. The music rises and before the audience has had a chance to ask any questions the film hits the open road.
Dissecting the anxiety of a nation with tense yet incredibly sympathetic family sagas, Jeff Nichols has cultivated a reputation as a modern raconteur for working class America. With Midnight Special, Nichols uses the idiosyncrasies afforded by science fiction to further probe the powerlessness of the country's blue-collar citizens, combining Spielbergian storytelling with a deeper understanding of the socio-political climate and, in doing so, has crafted a surprising human story about facing the unknown.
Sharing similar DNA to John Carpenter’s Starman and Simon Wincer’s D.A.R.Y.L, Midnight Special follows these armed men, Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton), and the young boy, Alton (Lieberher). Alton is Roy's son, who also has a mysterious set of powers – powers that require him to avoid direct sunlight and wear noise-cancelling headphones when he sleeps.
What begins as an escape from a religious sect quickly turns into a chase movie through middle America, with everyone from the FBI, NSA and Homeland security seemingly desperate to capture Alton. But what is he? A weapon? A savior? Or perhaps something entirely out of this world?
There’s one scene towards the film’s reveal that epitomises Nichols’ approach to genre filmmaking. In the midst of a high-speed chase down a tree-lined freeway the action grinds to a halt. Where others might hold down on the accelerator, our protagonists instead steer into a traffic jam. They’ve lost their momentum but the tension never subsides. Instead, the audience’s heartbeat is allowed to catch up with the interior tensions of the characters. It doesn’t matter what they do, events are entirely beyond their control; they’re on a collision course and all that matters is they’re altogether. Nichols has made no secret about the film being based on the emotions he experienced when faced with the threat of losing his own son, and just like in Take Shelter he continues to explore the anxieties of raising a child in the uncertain economic climate of post-crash America.
Those worried that a move towards the CGI heavy genre of sci-fi would have a detrimental effect on Nichols' ability to articulate the subtle permeations of everyday life can rest easy: this supernatural thriller is far more concerned with the human condition than superhuman powers or the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Nichols is clearly influenced by the science fiction films of the 80s, when the genre evolved from an exercise in optimism to dystopian tales of catastrophe and Armageddon (on score duty, David Wingo even recreates the pulsating electronic soundscapes that typified the period), and understands the genre's capacity to enthrall and educate in equal measure. However, although shaped by the works of Carpenter and Spielberg, this isn’t a straight-up homage to the sci-fi of Regan’s America. Nichols uses the limitless boundaries of the genre affords him greater time to explore the intimate.
Midnight Special spans the spectrum from the plausible to the fanciful, and sadly its elaborate finale reveals far more than is required. However, this remains an intelligent piece of blockbuster filmmaking, less a star-gazing look into a probable future than a thought-provoking portrait of modern America and the fear of the unknown that many families wrestle with daily.
Midnight Special had its world premiere at Berlin Film Festival on 12 Feb
Midnight Special is released in the UK 8 Apr by Entertainment One