SXSW: ‘Midnight Special’ Review

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (9.5 out of 10) Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols; Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden LieberherAdam Driver, Kirsten DunstSam ShepardPaul Sparks; Rated PG-13 for “ some violence and action”; Running time 111 minutes; In limited release March 18, 2016.

Midnight Special is the first must-see sci-fi movie of 2016. It is smart, intense, and incredible to watch. You will dig clawmarks into the armrests of your seat from the almost non-stop, white-knuckled intensity. While it will likely occupy the same sort of space that Ex Machina did last year, that’s not a very apt comparison, as this has more in common with science fiction of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, and THX-1138.

Our story centers around Roy (Michael Shannon), who, as the film opens we see a news report for an Amber Alert naming him as the abductor of a young boy– Alton (Jaeden Liebehrer). We see him wearing googles and under a blanket reading a comic book by flashlight. Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) ask the boy if he’s ready, and they quickly rush to a car just as the sun sets.

Cut to a few hundred miles away and a Central Texas religious cult (think Warren Jeffs FLDS “Yearning for Zion” Ranch, to which this bears a striking geographical and visual similarity). Their leader and prophet, the boy’s adopted father (Sam Shepherd), tasks two of his lieutenants to bring Alton back from Roy, whom they reveal is his birth father, or else their group will be doomed.  As he then exits to take the stage to preach to his flock, the FBI busts in and places the entire compound under arrest.

While disguised as a raid on them due to possible illegal weapon hoarding or other practices, it’s quickly revealed that all they care about is Alton, and how classified information ended up in the sermons given by their prophet. It seems Alton is the real prophet of the group, and he had the ability to see and hear things other didn’t, predict things, and “commune” with them in a way that revealed truths to them through a psychic connection—and intense light that shoots from his eyes, causing all things electronic to break and smaller earthquakes. Enter Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), an NSA signals analyst, which shows the government doesn’t just see this as a manhunt for a missing boy. He traces an energy signal the boy puts off that is similar to a nuclear bomb. And the hunt is on.

This is all the first ten to fifteen minutes (and most is visible in the trailer). What then ensues is a chase across several states with Roy and Lucas trying to keep Alton safe from the various parties that want him. It twists and turns half a dozen ways before ending in a climax only a great sci-fi can offer.

Is Alton an alien? Where did these powers come from? No saying. To reveal more than this will spoil this film, and this is something, like 10 Cloverfield Lane, that is better experienced the less you know.

This film can then be understood on a number of different levels. At its most basic, it’s a chase movie. And you get plenty of mileage (pardon the pun) out of Shannon and Edgerton’s gritty determination to deliver his son to safety away from those who want to exploit him. Shannon’s performance here is possibly his best to date, and the heart and soul of this film.

Then there is a second level to the movie. It’s a primal film about the bonds between family, and what lengths parents will go to protect their children. It would be remiss to not mention Kirsten Dunst, who delivers one of her best performances in a decade as Alton’s mother Sarah who appears halfway through the film.

But the third level goes deep and is where sci-fi nerds will go nuts.

All great sci-fi also deals with the time and place it is set. Just as The Day the Earth Stood Still or Night of the Living Dead tackled major social issues, so too does Midnight Special have something to say about the modern surveillance state. Alton’s abilities to pick up signals from satellites reminds us just how ever-present surveillance is. We simply can’t see it. Alton can, and it’s part of what makes him so remarkable, so special, and so dangerous to the government.

Adam Driver’s Paul Sevier even goes so far as to say the government sees him as “a weapon,” but a weapon for whom? They treat him as a threat because they cannot control him, reminding us that any possibility of upsetting the Panopticon apple cart used by the military-surveillance-industrial complex is a major threat to their power. Alton’s power and threat is the same as that of people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Even reminding us that we’re always being watched is threatening to them, as shown by the lengths they go to in order to cover up what is going on.

This film expects a lot from you. It expects you to pay attention. To keep up. To be ok with unanswered questions. LOTS of unanswered questions. Because the answers to those questions ultimately don’t matter to the core meaning of the film, as interesting as they would be. Or their answers will be revealed in due time. The anticipation and the way the narrative unfolds is as interesting as the plot itself.

Jeff Nichols runs this film like Shannon and Edgerton drive their car: fast and bare-bones, and often without the headlights running to keep a low profile. This is the genius of the movie, but you have to hang on, and this demands almost immediate repeat viewings to appreciate the multiple layers and textures.

Visually this is also stunning. The way they use light and darkness are as gorgeous as they are key to understanding the meaning of the film. Pay attention. It pays off. Most of the first half of the film plays out in the dark, for reasons which become apparent as you learn more about Alton. As more and more light is added, the story and themes are equally illuminated.

This is a great film and great for fans of sci-fi, great acting, and great visual filmmaking.

9.5 out of 10