‘MIDNIGHT SPECIAL’ Review: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart

Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ latest masterpiece, draws a direct line to the familial beauty of Spielberg’s greatest science fiction.

As independent, somewhat small-scale science fiction storms back into the public zeitgeist, audiences and auteurs tend to find themselves grasping at essential questions and mysteries. Lately, thanks to thought leaders like Rian Johnson and Alex Garland, those themes that have taken hold center around time travel (Johnson’s Looper) and artificial intelligence (Garland’s Ex Machina). What founts the two writer/directors have found this article cannot slag on; both are outstanding examples of how best to run philosophical thought experiments in a way that still feels rooted in character.

But as much a renaissance as those films presage, it still feels like we’re missing something. Or, perhaps, someone.

Watching E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind today feels like taking a Flintstone chewable vitamin as an adult. They taste delicious, and they’re doing tons of good by being absorbed into oneself; yet they feel dated, as if something has been lost to the sci-fi airwaves in the 30 or so years since those movies’ release. Steven Spielberg, at his wonderment apogee, was wholly unlike any other filmmaker before him or after. He carried with him a dogged sense of duty and family, loyalty to one’s principles in the face of mass criticism, or even death. A person’s word. That was the real currency in a great Spielberg sci-fi. As he moved away from the genre (around the time he met Tom Hanks and discovered that he could just make history movies), a horde of coattail riders rushed to take his place. Most recently J.J. Abrams has accepted that mantle. Abrams is an able filmmaker, and his style is ripped from Spielberg’s technical playbook. Sometimes, in rare moments of quiet, Abrams can even skim the water of Spielberg’s moral code. But Abrams isn’t Spielberg. Watch Super 8, it’s all there.

Alton, an eight year old boy with special powers, played by Jaeden Lieberher
Alton, an eight year old boy with special powers, played by Jaeden Lieberher

Which is all to say that watching Midnight Special, Austin writer/director Jeff Nichols’ latest picture, rekindles feelings that no science fiction movie since Close Encounters has stirred. Nichols, working with his seasoned muse Michael Shannon, a model of anti-Spielbergian casting if ever there was one, crafts a movie with such richly layered thematic elements that, just like Spielberg, the moments when story exposition and plot propulsion have to take over feel like pains. Abrams has usually succeeded with his “mystery box” concepts… Nichols ignores the box entirely, unless the world of the movie requires the box be opened.

The movie’s bifurcated narrative begins as a road story starring Shannon’s Roy, a sweetly Southern Joe Edgerton as Lucas, and child actor cypher-come-revelation Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton Meyer. Roy has kidnapped the eight-year-old Alton and escaped from the cult the two have lived in for most of Alton’s life, and are on a mission across the country that seems propelled at first by mysterious powers Alton cannot control. Nichols draws deft references to David Koresh and the Waco Branch Dividians in the scenes featuring the cult leader, played ably by Sam Shepherd. Even in minor key moments like this, Nichols finds a way to hint at material for another movie entirely; what if a cult, already in existence, began receiving messages from God?

But Nichols has other things on his mind, and at times Midnight Special feels frustrating for how focused it has to be. There are at least five movies here; Nichols picked the right one to hang his lantern on, but the world of it begs for living in.

Adam Driver as curious NSA communications agent Paul Sevier
Adam Driver as curious NSA communications agent Paul Sevier

The second narrative to the movie’s opening two-thirds is led by Adam Driver as an in over his head (but loving it) NSA agent charged with figuring out exactly what is so special about Alton. Driver spends all of the film ably channeling the curiosity of Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters, making the most of his charming anti-A-list stat sheet to guide the viewer away from seeing him as an antagonist and toward a view of him as a blend of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. He believes the truth is out there.

Focusing on the plot of Midnight Special feels like falling into the Abrams trap. It’s a taut road trip-style quest movie, and its supporting cast of characters all add emotional overtness to Shannon’s ultra-minimalist portrayals. One immediately understands why Shannon almost exclusively works with Nichols; the two bring out the best in each other.

Which brings us to Midnight Special’s great triumph – that it’s not really a science fiction movie at all. Sure, the third act gets into some pretty heady and fantastical stuff (no spoilers, but man are you in for a treat), but what’s most important about Midnight Special is fatherhood, family, and the duty to one’s own child.

It is clear from the get-go that Alton is special, and while Shannon’s performance betrays an underlying motive to his kidnapping, we’re not given to understand that Roy is any more motivated to protect the child than he is to see a mysterious mission through to its completion, safety of the child or no. Yet as Alton becomes more and more realized less as a Macguffin and more as E.T. with swimming goggles on, we see Roy’s motivation change. Nichols has said that he wanted to write a movie about becoming a father; Midnight Special feels like it picks up this metamorphosis in media res. The insecurity in his own actions, yet the steadfastness with which he does them to do right by Alton turns Midnight Special from retro science fiction genre experiment into meditation on what it means to raise a child. Any mistake could be the end.

Jeff Nichols directs his actors on the set of Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols directs his actors on the set of Midnight Special

Astute followers of Nichols’ work won’t be too alarmed by the form this insecure meditation takes. The movie feels very much a piece with Nichols’ pre-Midnight opus, Take Shelter, which dealt with themes of fatherhood and family legacy through the lens of mental illness. Nichols’ camera has never before felt as expansive or colorful as Midnight Special, yet tones, colors and a Hal Hartley-esque expertise on the beauty of the nothingness of suburbia render Take Shelter and Midnight Special spiritual brothers.

The reverence of nature, of the supernatural forces that guide our lives, and of something nearly graspable just beyond the reach of our cognition flow through the human sprawl of Nichols’ sets. At times, in both Take Shelter and Midnight Special, the need to grasp that supernatural, or maybe hyper-natural, law and destiny physically demolishes the human obstructions around it. Life finds a way, a Steven Spielberg movie might say.

Midnight Special stumbles in the same places as Close Encounters did; namely, its runs of exposition can feel unremarkable, and shine a light on the fact that really, we’re still watching a movie. But that flaw, in turn, highlights the difference between Nichols’ and Abrams’ tack towards Spielberg’s science fiction. Abrams, seeking to replicate and improve, loses the humanity of Spielberg’s overall themes by trying to fix and liven up all of the plot machinations that bog down E.T. or Close Encounters. Nichols, instead, takes those lumps and offers something affecting; a beating heart in place of an electrified brain. Unconcerned with kowtowing to fried brain cells grasping for the next edge-of-your-seat philosophical brain teaser by which our view of society might change, Midnight Special offers up the most fulfilling experience of science fiction myth in decades, a parable through which our views on self might change. By eschewing modernity, Jeff Nichols achieves emotional resonance through the eyes of a family.

Grade: A 

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