A road movie that harkens back to some sci-fi classics

by Gazette Reporter

there is a certain strain of sci-fi films that took over cinema screens in the late 70s and early 80s – films such as Stephen Spielberg’s ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or John Carpenter’s Starman – that tend to be emblazoned into the minds of the generation that was growing up at the time
They are a far cry from the kind of grim and doom-laden sci-fi films that became popular in later decades; instead, these earlier films offered grand adventure entwined with a narrative of hope of redemption – a strange mix of what is most otherworldly, and what is most human.
It is in this same vein that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special must be watched.
Brooding and mysterious, Midnight Special is a film that likes to keep its audience ensconced snugly in the dark.
Roy (Michael Shannon) is the concerned father who goes on the run with his supernaturally gifted son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).
Alton’s got a myriad of inexplicable powers – but it’s his ability to tune into messages being relayed by satellites that has him in trouble.
Murky government agencies want to run tests and find out exactly how Alton is accessing their information, while the remote evangelical community that claim Alton as a prophetic figurehead want to utilise him for their own devices.
Midnight Special plays out as a kind of peculiar road trip, as it falls on Roy and an old friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), to get the boy across the country to safety before the government or the church find them.
Things get more complex when Alton’s hypersensitivity to daylight comes into play – forcing him to spend much of the trip decked out in swimming goggles, and reading comics by torchlight in blacked-out rooms.
Much of the action is driven (quite literally, as we travel across several states) by Edgerton and Shannon.
Nichols keeps the screenplay fairly spartan, so much of the relationship between the two men is played out through their silences – and their performances are all the better for it, with Shannon exuding a kind of desperate determinism, while Edgerton continues on the trip with a kind of weary loyalty.
Kirsten Dunst comes on board in the second half as Alton’s mother, as does Girls’ Adam Driver, who plays the government researcher that develops a special connection to Alton.
There is an undeniable yearning to evoke a sense of nostalgia throughout Midnight Special. Despite being set in the present day, the clothing, the sets, and the shots all feel from the heyday of feel-good sci-fi.
Adam Stone, who worked as cinematographer on Nichols’ previous features (Mud, and Take Shelter) captures and evokes that “ET feeling” in scenes set in windswept cornfields and lush forests.
However, the film remains concerned with light and dark, and Midnight Special introduces a darkness, both literal and figurative, that was not present in the earlier films that it aspires to emulate.
Alongside the light of hope and human connection lies a darker strand of religious fervour, desperation, and violence.
Midnight Special keeps its cards close to its chest, teasing the audience along in the dark but never quite enlightening them. As a result, it will be accused of having more style than substance, and it is hard to argue against that.
It is a simple story that is told well, but there is something more going on. We enjoy some films because they make us feel clever, others because they make us feel tension, but Midnight Special succeeds in trying to evoke those sci-fi films of the 80s, because watching it feels wholesome.
This is good, clean, cinematic fare for a new generation.
Verdict: 7/10

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