Midnight Special movie review: Close encounters of a worse kind
Sci-fi parable promises more than it delivers
Of late we've been assailed by the work of directors (JJ Abrams, Gareth Edwards) who grew up on the films of Steven Spielberg, and the great man's paw prints are all over Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special. Close Encounters of the Third Kind seems to be a particularly strong inspiration, and the threat of imminent extraterrestrial intervention looms heavily over Nichols' slow-moving and nicely photographed drama.
In rural Texas, two salty-looking dudes are on the run with a young boy of 10 or so, whom they appear to have kidnapped. But all is not as it seems, because Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is the son of Roy (Michael Shannon), who has rescued his child from the clutches of a religious cult with the help of his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). This, however, was no ordinary cult, and Alton was no acolyte but its messiah, for reasons that soon become clear.
Alton possesses immensely powerful telekinetic powers which kick in any time he becomes angry or emotional, when a blinding light shines from his eyes. The cult has been using his mysterious pronouncements as prophesies of the end of the world, but Roy thinks differently, and realises that his son must be in a certain part of rural Florida on a given date and time if he's to survive. Because his health is failing for mysterious reasons, and every time he involuntarily uses his powers, he grows weaker.
The government, meanwhile, want to get their hands on him, especially after an FBI investigator called Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) discovers that Alton's prophesies include encoded top secret data that has apparently been drawn from orbiting satellites.
After an unfortunate incident at a rural gas station when an endangered Alton causes a satellite that's been tracking them to crash to earth, unleashing a violent meteor shower, the authorities decide to classify the child as a weapon, a decision that bodes badly for his future.
And things get even more emotional for the boy when Roy reunites him with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who was excommunicated from the cult after trying to rescue Alton, and has not seen her son in years. She will join them on their desperate journey to Florida, with an army of government agents and cops on their tail.
In previous films like Take Shelter and the excellent Mud, Jeff Nichols has explored the American tradition of outcasts and savants, and has shot on low budgets in an unadorned indie style. Which makes this project a rather unlikely one from his point of view, because while the likes of JJ Abrams and Gareth Edwards are well versed in science-fiction lore and the bracing conventions of the action genre, Nichols enters the Spielbergian universe of Midnight Special with what looks like cautious dread.
I'm perfectly prepared to accept the premise of the strange telekinetic kid, and even his eventual justification, but once the lad's talents are revealed, this film goes nowhere very slowly. An atmosphere of apocalyptic dread is skilfully established, but promises more than is ever delivered, and a lack of narrative urgency makes the story seem slow and turgid at times. The scene at the gas station is very well managed, but is a rare burst of action in this oddly grim and joyless film.
If too little happens most of the time, too much happens at the end, and an unexpected CGI-laden climax seems like something from another, tackier film. But there is some emotional depth in the drama, and most of it comes from the relationship between father and son.
As their ragged caravan wends slowly east, Shannon grinds his teeth and looks worried as only he can, and lets us know that he's overwhelmed by the dread of imminent separation. They could be any parent and child, and their touching connection feels like the only real thing in this promising but rather confusing film.
Midnight Special (12A, 112mins)
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