Friday, April 8, 2016

Midnight Special

Writer/director Jeff Nichols' latest is an unusual movie more likely to appeal to sci-fi nerds than the general public. Midnight Special is a good science fiction movie with two major flaws which keep it from becoming the great science fiction movie that starts out with so much promise during its first half-hour.

Without preamble or set-up, we're thrown into the middle of the action involving the abduction of a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult by Alton's biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). It doesn't take long us to suspect that Alton is no ordinary boy and why the cult, the United States Government, and Roy all have very different plans for Alton and his unique gifts.

A common problem in films like this is when they remind the audience of better films from which they borrow story elements. And Midnight Special borrows heavily. Although not in their class, Midnight Special will remind you of movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Starman, and countless others.

While that's certainly forgivable, the movie's other major flaw is a little more damning. Also common in stories where the truth is shrouded in mystery and only slowly revealed, the mystery itself turns out to be far more intriguing than the answers it eventually provides so the more the film reveals the less engaging it becomes. When Midnight Special presents questions it works very well. When it starts to provide answers, particularly about just who and what Alton is and what he wants, the story begins to struggle to live up the promise of its early scenes. All of this leads to a payoff in the final act that reminded me of a more recent, and equally intriguing but ultimately flawed, film (Tomorrowland) given its final act revelations.

Despite these two major problems, offering us a story that reminds of better films we'd rather be watching and ending on an anti-climactic note, Midnight Special is definitely worthy of viewing for sci-fi fans. When this film is good it is really good. As he did previously with Mud, Nichols structures the entire movie around the relationship between a man and a child. As with that film, Nichols gets the best from both actors and as a bonus we're granted strong supporting nods from both Kirsten Dunst and Edgerton.

Although central to a corner Nichols writes himself into at one point in the script, I was far less interested with Adam Driver's NSA agent or the plotline of the Federal Government's investigation into the cult and its manhunt for Roy and Alton. There's simply not enough time to properly dive into it and any time spent on the subplot takes away from the characters we actually care about. In fact you could easily cut this entire FBI thread from the film and offer a more focused character study on father and son.

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