‘Midnight Special’ is an Imperfect Take on Classic Science Fiction

Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi drama tries and fails to replicate some of the wonder of its influences

A strange pattern has been taking place in many of the recent science fiction films released in theaters today. Simply put, many of the major films that brand themselves as science fiction just don’t fit the criteria needed to earn their place among heavyweights like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Zemeckis’ Contact.

Many of the big sci-fi blockbusters today are merely just action movies that utilize elements of the genre like alien invasions and futuristic worlds as set pieces. The often thought-provoking nature of the sci-fi films of yore, as they sought to explore themes relating to the human condition, is almost nonexistent in this new breed that prioritizes spectacle over self-examination.

However, a new entry in the genre takes a shot in the dark at bringing back that age of introspection in the form of spring release Midnight Special written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) using his powers

By no means is Midnight Special revolutionary in any regard. In fact, it’s nothing but conventional when you take into account the oh-so-familiar plot.

The trials that father Roy Tomlin, played by Michael Shannon, must go through to protect his superpowered son Alton Meyer, played by Jaeden Lieberher, from the threat of government agencies and a cult-like society of fanatics known as the ranch harkens back to earlier predecessors such as Firestarter, or to a lesser degree Children of the Corn.

Unfortunately, this lack of originality maneuvers its way into the overarching themes of the film, a phenomenon that is ultimately detrimental to the final product. Midnight Special is one of those movies that never truly finds a balance, favoring the characters and their dynamics over plot.

As a result, the performances given by the adult cast members is stellar. Each character’s arc is fully formed and never feels empty.

The talented cast has great chemistry

Whether it be the struggle parents Roy and Sarah Tomlin, played by Kirsten Dunst, face in accepting the fact that they may not be able to accommodate the needs of Alton or the dilemma accomplice Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton, has to deal with concerning his moral degradation due to the extreme circumstances, these big names predictably nail their respective roles.

Adam Driver’s portrayal of Paul Sevier, an NSA agent assigned to track down Alton, was a standout with his quirkiness and Nichols’ use of the character as a surrogate for the viewer. The weakest link in the chain is Alton.

He falls into the trap many films with a similar premise tend to: he acts more like an adult than a child. This issue can be seen in action in one scene where he is being interrogated by Sevier after being captured. The deadpan delivery of his lines coupled with the unnerving displays of omnipotence is almost alien.

Alton acts more mature than he should be

Concurrently, his arc is the most underdeveloped of the bunch. We see him reading Superman comics constantly but that simply isn’t enough to warrant a connection.

Visually, Nichols succeeds by doing more with less. The warm tones and small town vibes given off by the imagery helps keep everything grounded. This, in turn, makes the moments where Alton’s abilities are on display even more intense.

Nichols made an interesting choice by making the setting look anachronistic. From an aesthetics standpoint, the look and feel is a refreshing departure from the usual whizzbang approach to storytelling.

As previously mentioned, Midnight Special suffers from a lack of direction thematically. While the gesture is fulfilling some kind of intellectual merit, it largely falters in sticking with it all the way. The messages scattered throughout the narrative are about as ambiguous as Alton’s powers.

Themes of parenthood are strong throughout

On a personal level, the narrative of a parental figure going through extreme lengths to protect their child from the world’s many dangers is spot on. On a larger scale, the messages surrounding the havoc religious fanaticism can wreak on interpersonal relationships or the impersonal tactics of the federal government largely fall by the wayside.

Recently, there’s been a resurgence in sci-fi television and films focusing on heady topics. Series like Orphan Black and Black Mirror along with films like Ex Machina and Interstellar continue on the tradition of putting humanity under the microscope. While Midnight Special doesn’t hit the same notes, it manages to entertain with a tight story filled with suspense and whimsy that is welcoming to all.