Disclaimer: Given the film’s nature, it is incredibly difficult not spoil something. I tried my best to be as vague as possible but there may be some light spoilers. You have been warned.
During my screening of Midnight Special, the lights went out due to a power outage. It took the audience ten seconds to figure out that the screen’s sudden cut to black was not part of the actual film. For a moment, everyone believed that the theater’s flickering lights were part of the story.
That malfunction told me all I needed to know about Midnight Special: I must have been watching something great in order to believe something outside of the screen was part of the film.
The power came back on after a couple of minutes and the film resumed. Sadly, it never again reached that level of captivation again.
The story revolves around Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who has special powers. Wanted by both the government and a religious cult, Alton must depend on his father (Michael Shannon) to protect him from those who wish him harm.
Alton is essentially the anti-Superman. When I say Superman, I do not mean Zack Snyder’s phony one. I’m talking about the one who is an alien but desperately tries to be human. Powered by the sun, Superman has abilities that can genuinely save the lives of millions. He inspires hope and is selfless to a fault.
Alton is not.
Without giving too much away, his powers can’t be used to directly save people. His powers aren’t spectacular, they are creepy. He is a human that doesn’t want to be human. He is sickly and his goals are selfish. Granted, Alton is a little boy. But no matter the age, his character is written as detached, disconcerting and not relatable.
This is the crux of Midnight Special’s weakness.
Director Jeff Nichols is a gifted storyteller because he is able to get you invested immediately in the story despite the fact that you have no idea what’s going on. You won’t be put off by that. In fact, the mystery of it all is what makes the film entertaining. Once Nichols starts providing answers, however, the film begins to lose its audience. The answers detract from the film’s originality and don’t fit with the film’s dark, ominous tone. Instead of evolving with the story, the tone remains fixed throughout, which leads to a lack of emotional fulfillment despite the resolved mystery.
By the end of Midnight Special, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Alton is a marvel. Yet, due to the tone and the character himself, the audience won’t feel that way.
Although Alton is the film’s main detraction, everything else about it works. With Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst giving wonderfully restrained performances, the film has an emotional maturity that other science fiction endeavors could learn from. While the music doesn’t help with the film’s tonal issues, it sets the tone perfectly and helps build tension with its intended moments of silence.
Midnight Special is not a film for everyone. It is more for the 2001: A Space Odyssey crowd than it is for the Star Wars crowd. Since I fall in the latter category, I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped.
Nonetheless, any fan of science fiction needs to see this film.
Midnight Special was released March 18, 2016.