Midnight Special

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 18, 2016

Jean Lieberher stars in 'The Midnight Special'
Jean Lieberher stars in 'The Midnight Special'  (Source:Warner Bros. Pictures)

The puzzlement about terrible movies with good casts isn't always a matter of paychecks; actors who are in demand have their choice of projects, so when an actor the caliber of Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, or Joel Egerton fetches up in a half-baked sci-fi thriller like "Midnight Special," you have to believe they saw something in the script they liked and believed in.

The cast holds further surprises: Sam Shepard appears as the leader of a religious community that has isolated itself on a remote ranch. Adam Driver shucks the black cloak he wore in "The Force Awakens," pulls on a pair of eyeglasses, and transforms into a national security wonk. So what gives?

The story is a mish-mash, but it's recognizable enough: A boy (named Alton, in this case, and played by Jaeden Lieberher) turns out to have special powers. He can eavesdrop on radio transmissions, including secure NSA satellite signals; he can even pull such satellites out of the sky; he can shoot beams of enlightenment (or something) from his eyes, enchanting the people with whom he comes into contact. Obviously, he's an alien, a mutant, and angel, or some other exotic specimen; what he can't do, however, is explain who he is, where he's from, or what he's doing here.

Alton has two parents, by all appearances completely ordinary human beings. His mother is Sarah (Dunst), who either abandoned Alton years ago or, in an agreement with Alton's father, stepped back to allow the boy to be taken away to the religious community in order to keep his strange abilities a secret. Alton's father is Roy (Shannon), who has up and taken Alton on a road trip to get him... someplace. The trip has been undertaken in the face of a number of challenges, the first of which is a deadline. It seems that Alton has to get wherever he's going by 3 p.m. on Friday. (That's a nice nod to the Easter season, if a not too subtle wink at the genre's typical "son of God" conceits.)

There are further complications, too, including the fact that the government has illicitly hijacked the Amber Alert system in order to track down and arrest Alton's father and steal the boy for their own purposes. An NSA official named Sevier (Driver) has found out about Alton's powers and wants to contain and interrogate him. "I think you're a weapon," he says, shortly after the kid and he come face to face.

It's a merry chase. Roy has enlisted the help of his old boyhood friend, Lucas (Egerton), to help keep him and Alton safe and moving toward their destination. It's a lucky thing that Lucas has had some training in the ways of grand theft auto, guns, and the proper way to speed around the country in a hotrod painted with primer, because Sevier and his goons are only one faction in hot pursuit: The religious fanatics from the ranch have become convinced that Alton is their Messiah, and come Friday at 3 pm they intend to be there for The Rapture.

So is that where all this is going? Will aliens descend in a blaze of light and glory to reclaim the lad? Perhaps a heavenly host, with Paul Bethany at the forefront, will come swarming down in welcome? The big reveal is suitably celestial and weird, though it also lacks clarity and logic. The film begins with a certain mood of grit and realism, which it sustains as best it can through the first two acts, but when the Great White Light comes washing down it dissolves the plot, rather than illuminating anything.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has grand ideas, but they lack hard edges. He does keep you guessing; Nichols knows his audience will have seen a bevy of similarly themed films, and he tweaks and teases with any number of riffs and reference points. You'll get hints of "Starman" and "Tomorrowland," as well as the cult TV series "Roswell" and its cinematic clone, 2011's "I am Number Four." You'll also taste notes of "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" and "Man of Steel," along with traces of the 2008 remake of "The Day the World Stood Still" and even the 1986 Argentinean film "Man Facing Southeast."

But "Midnight Special" won't join the film canon as a significant entry for the simple reason that it's not only none of those movies; in the end it's nothing at all, at least nothing definite. Good science fiction -- movies of any sort, really -- have to be about something bigger than the chase. If Alton has a purpose to being here, or to going back to wherever he (somehow, inexplicably) came from, Nichols isn't letting us in on what it is. This movie replaces central questions in favor of violence, action, and tired narrative shortcuts, its early illusion of substance fading way into wispy tendrils of vapor.



Roy :: Michael Shannon
Lucas :: Joel Edgerton
Sarah :: Kirsten Dunst
Alton :: Jaeden Lieberher
Sevier :: Adam Driver
Calvin Meyer :: Sam Shepard
Doak :: Bill Camp
Levi :: Scott Haze
Fredrick :: Sean Bridgers
Sharon Davison :: Dana Gourrier
Agent Miller :: Paul Sparks


Director :: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter :: Jeff Nichols
Producer :: Sarah Green
Producer :: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Executive Producer :: Glen Basner
Executive Producer :: Hans Graffunder
Executive Producer :: Christos Konstantakopoulos
Cinematographer :: Adam Stone
Film Editor :: Julie Monroe
Original Music :: David Wingo
Production Design :: Chad Keith
Art Director :: Austin Gorg
Set Decoration :: Adam Willis
Costume Designer :: Erin Benach
Casting :: Francine Maisler

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.