Just as the so-called “movie brat” directors of the 70s often cite John Ford, Hitchcock, and Antonioni as some of their major influences, younger directors often reference the movie brats scene when asked about their own influences.
Even among giants like Scorsese, Malick, and Altman, one director seems to be talked about more than any other: Steven Spielberg. For many of these younger directors, we’re seeing Spielberg’s films not just as inspirations, but as templates from which one creates one’s own work.
While Spielberg by no means has a monopoly on the sentimental, child-centric, and often alien-related science fiction film, it’s a recognizable hallmark that filmmakers like Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams have tried, in an effort to reinvigorate science-fiction with films like Tomorrowland and Super 8.This recent trend of aping the “Spielberg film” is the context in which we consider Jeff Nichols’ newest film, Midnight Special: a flawed but lovingly constructed homage to early Spielbergian sci-fi with Nichols’ now-distinctive southern flavor.
Midnight Special is essentially a road trip thriller with a late night, b-movie twist. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run after kidnapping his biological son from a mysterious cult referred to only as “The Ranch.” Aided by old friend and state trooper, Lukas (Joel Edgerton), Roy races his way across the American south in an effort to get his son to an undisclosed location for undisclosed reason.
The catch, however, is that Roy’s eight-year-old son, Alton, is sick, and is exhibiting behavior which can only be described as supernatural. To say much more would be to ruin the film, which is structured around a series of slow reveals about what’s actually happening with this mysterious child who even the FBI seems to have taken an interest in capturing.
Like Nichols’ earlier films, there’s a lot to recommend Midnight Special. Nichols’ visual technique is impeccable, and though sometimes spread too thin across the film’s runtime, the pared-down action set pieces are thrilling and visceral in a way few blockbuster filmmakers achieve.
Certainly, if Nichols is tired of working on his own material or having films only play to arthouse theater crowds, he has a promising career as director of more conventional, commercial thrillers. Even within the constraints of a 18 million dollar budget — still a more expensive undertaking than the sum of Nichols previous three films combined — Midnight Special is a gorgeous film with a near-perfect mix of practical action moments and sparing, purposeful CGI.
Nichols has also proved to be an excellent “actor’s director”, eliciting performances of the highest quality from everyone he chooses for his films. Michael Shannon is, of course, amazing. (In future reviews of Michael Shannon vehicles I might not even comment on his performances, he has cemented himself as one of the best actors working today, and this is no exception.) His work with Nichols still continues to showcase Shannon at his best, and though this film never rises to the heights of Take Shelter, Shannon is captivating nonetheless.
Jaeden Lieberher, a child actor with an already impressive resume by the time he was cast in Midnight Special, is a more than serviceable stand-in for the archetypical Spielbergian child-character, though he spends most of the movie either gazing at the sky or with his head buried in comics.The most welcome surprise was Joel Edgerton, whom I’ve had less-than-favorable things to say about in the past (mostly Black Mass related). He’s a welcome addition to Nichols’ cast of conflicted “kidnappers,” and I’m looking forward to him in Nichols’ second project coming out this year entitled Loving.
The real failing of Midnight Special, despite all the excellent components, comes down to issues in writing and plotting. The movie sat in pre-release limbo for a few years, due to minor rewrites and reshoots: a fact which unfortunately shows in the final result. A few scenes seem to exist for no other reason than to provide exposition, and the quality of the writing during these moments takes a noticeable dip, turning what would have been a tightly-engineered sci-fi thriller into a film struggling to keep all its ducks in a row.
As with many original sci-fi ideas, the film has some trouble wrapping up the truly fantastic setup done early on in the story. The film hits familiar–even obvious–story beats as it draws to a close, which is both regrettable and unfortunate considering Nichols’ obvious talent.He has obvious trouble reigning-in all of the elements he wants to include near the end of the film, and the ending suffers for it, ultimately screeching to a halt for the final scenes instead of building to a crescendo.
Despite both Nichols’ fresh perspective on an eerily familiar sci-fi story and the huge talents both on and off camera, Midnight Special isn’t able to rise to the potential of its first half, ultimately fizzling out where it could’ve shone.
Rating: 3 out of 5