Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher Kirsten Dunst, Joel Egerton, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: April 8th
In Michael Crichton’s Sphere, after the U.S. Navy discovers an alien spaceship at the bottom of an ocean, they corral a team of scientists of varying skill sets to go on the first exploration inside the craft. One of the scientists is a psychologist, brought along to help deal with any traumas or reactions the crew might have at first contact with an alien life form. What stokes horror in one person could easily evoke awe or disgust in another. It’s an interesting prism to view science fiction through in general, like the idea that when watching something like Norris in John Carpenter’s The Thing grotesquely transmogrifying into a scuttling head-crab, your reaction may be of stomach churning disgust, but if presented with it in real life, you could become paralysed with astonishment or thrust into madness.
Jeff Nichols — director of an excellent trio of movies: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud — examines this idea in Midnight Special, his first stab at a larger studio production. At its centre is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old boy who occasionally emits ultralight beams from his eyes brighter than a Chance the Rapper verse, and has the ability to pull satellites out of orbit. To those that are aware of him and his power, he becomes a totem; a weapon to the government, a God to a religious cult slowly beginning to militarise and, in what Nichols is most interested in exploring, a son to Roy (Michael Shannon).
Nichols wrote Take Shelter — a haunting drama about a man plagued by apocalyptic visions who alienates his family with a madding insistence on building a storm shelter in his backyard — as a reaction to his experiences and anxieties after becoming married. Now a first-time parent, he uses his trepidation about early fatherhood and knowing he eventually has to let his son off into the world alone, and transplants them onto Roy who, along with ex-cop Lucas (Joel Edgerton, eschewing his leading man looks to be a solid support), camps out in boarded up motels and traverses Deep South backroads in the hope of getting Alton free. To where or for what, they don’t really know.
Shannon’s calling card for years has been playing a man about to hit breaking point, but as Roy he is nurturing and uncharacteristically vulnerable, highly driven and racked with fear. (In a scene that would kill you, a self-assured Alton tells his dad not to fret about him only for Roy to reply, “I like to worry about you.”) He’s the perfect foil to Midnight Special‘s nearest thing to a villain in Calvin Meyer (another Nichols’ regular, Sam Shepard), the laconic and menacing cult leader who sees Alton as a messianic saviour. Meyer wants to capture Alton because he’s thinks he’s the key to salvation, Roy knows Alton’s freedom will be his.
A lot of talk about Midnight Special has been of Nichols becoming a southern fried Spielberg, but realistically, he has been his entire career. While its extra-terrestrial leanings and we-don’t-know-where-we’re-going-until-we-get-there plot are similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Take Shelter equally drew on for its family dynamics, whereas Mud was pure Amblin. What Nichols realises best about Spielberg was his incredible grasp on suburbia — be it California, Indiana or Massachusetts — that grounded his bigger, other-worldly moments in something you could relate to. Nichols’ cinematic fiefdom since the beginning has been built on the Bible Belt, and by displaying such a believable, lived in world, when he takes big swings with plot, the sense of wonder is truly palpable.
The leap he takes in the third act might be a little underwhelming for some — a big chase sequence is teased and immediately stymied by a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, for example — but everything he does feels earned and true to the characters he’s created. While playing within genre, at its centre, he’s crafted an affecting, captivating and gorgeously-shot (regular cinematographer Adam Stone has a ball in the everglades) tale about the separation of father and son. Good science fiction tends to get us asking lofty questions about our world and beyond, Midnight Special makes the case that great science fiction needs to ask more personal ones.