Midnight Special is part chase movie, part science fiction pulp, and the end result is fascinating. It’s simple sci-fi, but the depth within the material makes the film as complex and thought-provoking as the old classics. Director Jeff Nichols knows how to convey a moving and intimate story, filled with thrills and masterful performances, yet keep the more outlandish stuff grounded.
The film opens marvelously, and you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the authorities with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who just so happens to have mysterious powers. He’s fleeing a cult with his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the three reunite with Alton’s birth mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), while avoiding militia who intend to turn Alton into a weapon.
Midnight Special may not seem like deep science fiction, and initially it isn’t. With its limited budget only allowing a few knockout effects, Midnight Special is limited to big ideas on a small scale, and Nichols has his work cut out for him. He knows this, and the best part of Midnight Special is its intriguing mystery. Opening in the middle of a thrilling chase sequence leaves the audience in wonder, constantly asking why Alton is so important and what exactly he is. We continue to ask these questions throughout, and some become answered while others don’t. The beauty of the film is its layering of the story, going back and forth between Roy’s exodus with Alton and the investigation into the boy by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Each scene is meticulous in revealing details and relationships, Nichols’s dialogue growing a bit frustrating towards the end yet intriguing nonetheless, and not a second is wasted.
Michael Shannon leads a tremendous cast, in what is becoming quite a fascinating director-actor relationship between the two. Shannon brings Roy’s faith and love in Alton to center stage, crafting a believable and intimate father-son bond, but it goes deeper than that. Shannon is able to conjure up such powerful emotions with just his eyes alone, he doesn’t even have that much to say in the film, yet we go along for the ride. Dunst and Edgerton also do fine work, the former playing an ex-cult member who hasn’t seen her son in years, and the latter being an underdeveloped state trooper whose blind faith in Alton adds interesting layers to the chase narrative.
I could see Midnight Special being a tad frustrating to certain viewers. Many questions are left open-ended and the finale is a bit rushed. But the film isn’t traditional science fiction; the self-contained story allows the world-building to remain simple, as the film is essentially a chase sequence mixed with disaster elements. But Nichols goes above and beyond in his characterization and production, making a beauty of a film.