Classic-style sci-fi films, those that are more about humanity and morality than ray guns, are rare these days. “Midnight Special” is being promoted as such a film, and with the pedigree attached, it looked promising. Unfortunately it relies almost entirely on atmosphere and neglects everything else.
It’s been four years since Jeff Nichols’ last film “Mud.” After that critical success, hopes were high for his next film. But instead of creating something new and unique, he instead channels “E.T” into a film that is apparently targeted at adults, the very audience who will scoff at this bland knockoff. “Midnight Special” isn’t without merit though. The opening half hour is expertly crafted. The dark and dangerous tone is set in the first few moments. Questions pop up in the audience’s mind immediately, but answers are slowly doled out, engaging our curiosity further. Two men are holed up in a hotel, armed to the teeth. They are traveling with a young boy who seems to trust them completely. Are these men heroes or villains? What are they waiting for? And what’s with all the duct tape in this movie?
Sadly, around the halfway mark, it becomes tired and cliched. The only interesting elements, a cult following living on “The Ranch” is suddenly ditched. Sam Shepard is entirely wasted after his handful of scenes as the cult leader “Calvin Meyer.” Concepts of science, religion, and faith are brought up, but never fully realized. There are also issues with the motivations of the boy’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon). The story is teased as “a father who will stop at nothing for his son,” but dialogue throughout the film makes you wonder if he’s acting on parental love, or motivated by cult-based “faith.” A good sci-fi film should leave you with questions, but philosophical ones, not plot holes and logic issues. (After the film is over, ask yourself, based on what you’ve seen, is that really the only/best way for them to have achieved their goal?)
Only Nichols’ writing can be faulted in this movie. Cinematically, it looks great, and the performances are top notch. Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst are still at the top of their craft. Jaeden Lieberher is exceptional as the odd, young Alton. But none of this can raise this over-long, bland film to more than an exercise in style over substance.