There's a recurring theme in my writing about genre cinema and I stand by it again and again. I would rather see an ambitious film try something new and come up a bit short than a more traditional film not do anything interesting at all.
No one can fault writer/director Jeff Nichols for not taking risks. In his five features so far (including potential Oscar spoiler Loving), he has a knack for tackling huge, earth-shattering issues (literal and figurative) with a laser focus on subtle shifts in human emotion as people fight for stability in their lives.
Midnight Special marks Nichols' third collaboration with star Michael Shannon, and it is once again a fruitful partnership. Shannon plays Roy, the father of a boy with a special gift. His son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is able to tune into and manipulate broadcast frequencies with his mind, and produces a strange glowing sensation from his eyes that brings people on an emotional journey of understanding and compassion. Roy kidnaps Alton with the help of a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) to bring him to a specific set of coordinates on a specific date that might hold the key to understanding Alton's powers.
That alone is enough fodder for a traditional sci-fi coming of age/reconnection drama, but Nichols isn't done there. Roy kidnaps Alton from a cult that believes his powers are communications straight from God. The government is also after Alton because he's decoded high level government intel that was shared, word for word, by the cult through e-mail. Roy is smeared as a dangerous kidnapper of a white child to bring Alton in for government research, while the cult sends out a pair of vigilantes with a large arsenal of weapons to bring Alton back for what they believe is Judgment Day.
Midnight Special is old-fashioned sci-fi with no easy answers. There is never more than a cursory attempt to explain Alton's powers because the source of the power is unimportant to the narrative. This is a story about sacrifice, betrayal by all levels of organized gathering in society, and a family trying to reconnect against all odds. It just happens to feature a child at the center who can tear down entire buildings or knock out government satellites.
Michael Shannon is extraordinary in the film. One can only imagine the strangeness of the subject matter is keeping him from easy and consistent inclusion in awards for 2016. Roy does not have many lines, and he doesn't need to in order to convey what's really going on. This is a portrait of a man desperately trying to save his son without alerting the child to any possible danger he faces.
It clearly hurts everyone who truly cares about Alton to take the necessary precautions to keep him safe. Every single time the child is going to enter the world during the day, he has to wear dark blue sports goggles to block out the sun. He has to wear construction grade ear muffs to help silence the noise from the never-ending frequencies entering and exiting his consciousness at night. Every window he'll encounter has to be blocked out with cardboard and, for maximum safety, he is usually covered in a blanket or sheet to block out external stimuli. If these precautions aren't taken, Alton unleashes the full force of his powers and becomes quite ill.
No one wants to see their child suffer. No one wants to see their child exploited. No one wants their child manipulated, or imprisoned, or tormented for the greater good. For Roy, it doesn't matter if his child is a prophet, a weapon, or something less than human; Alton is his son, and he will fight to the death to protect him.
Nichols envisions these huge action sequences that are focused entirely on the human element. When Alton accidentally makes meteorites fall from the sky and crash into a gas station, he is never lost in the action. We are forced to stare at Alton as Roy chases after him, confronts him, and carries him away to safety. All the while, high quality spectacle is happening around them. Ask me to describe what the explosions looked like and I couldn't tell you; ask me to go into detail about how Roy confronts Alton about leaving the van and I can tell you everything.
If the ending of the film is a bit of a letdown compared to the tense build up, it's totally forgivable. Midnight Special takes a shift towards that fantastic that makes sense when you reflect on it.
The final action sequence is beautiful, but does hit a certain emotional sameness that feels just a bit out of place compared to the rest of the story. It lingers just a bit too long on pretty to really drive home the catharsis in the moment.
I'm totally okay with Jeff Nichols taking a bit of a victory dance moment in this sequence. The quality of acting and consistency of the vision mostly carries it through. The final scenes afterwards are the perfect length and pace to wrap up the loose ends and justify hanging on so long to Alton's big moment. The film is literally and structurally building to this moment and Nichols delivers something worthy of congratulation and self-indulgence. It's a living dream that impacts reality and makes sense in context, if not in the moment.
Midnight Special, for all of its strange sci-fi elements, is a film about moments. It's almost like a really good tabletop game. There are different players playing by different rules trying to reach their win condition by a set deadline. No one is guaranteed a victory, but, realistically, only one win condition can happen. The only consistent element is the immediacy of moments in the lives of humans impacted by something beyond our understanding and how we chose to react. That alone is worth embracing this strangely quiet sci-fi epic.