‘Midnight Special’ Review: A Truly Great, Original Sci-Fi Thriller, Until…
“Let the midnight special shine it’s light on me,” go the lyrics of the folk song that shares a title, Midnight Special, with director Jeff Nichols’ fourth film. While those lyrics have no explicit analog within the film, it certainly is a fitting description of the powers of a mysterious young boy, Alton, whose eyes can shoot bursts of a powerful blue light that deliver an overwhelming sense of emotion and awe to those in his gaze.
As we first meet Alton, he’s on the run with two men who have kidnapped him from a religious cult. We don’t know why (Nichols keeps the film largely devoid of exposition, doling out information only when necessary and natural) the cult seems to worship Alton as some sort of deity, nor do we know why Roy (frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have taken him, or where they are going. We do know that the cult members will stop at nothing to get him back and that the government, led by a nerdy NSA agent (Adam Driver), would like some answers as to how Alton seemingly knows top secret information.
It’s a tense, trippy sci-fi mystery; a chase movie crossed with LOST, but like the hit ABC series, you will most assuredly enjoy the ride, but you may not like where you’re going.
As Roy, Lucas and Alton get closer and closer to their destination (even they don’t really know what’s going to happen when they get there) and the film reaches its inevitable climax, Nichols is forced to face some of the big questions he’s raised throughout the film — specifically, who is Alton and what is his purpose — and the answers that are provided are underwhelming and unsatisfying. At one point during the third act Alton, who to this point has remained largely monosyllabic, explains “who he is” in great details to Lucas and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), a former cult member who has joined their cause (I’ll do you the favor of not revealing everyone’s true identity), the latter of which replies, “I understand.” Really? Because I could think of about 100 follow-up questions that aren’t being asked. It’s both frustratingly obvious and ambiguous at the same time.
Nichols, who had been so good at telling you only the information you absolutely needed throughout a focused and lean build-up, suddenly betrays that strategy showing too much. Fans of Tomorrowland (if such people exist) will recognize similar themes and visuals during the film’s conclusion, all of which feels tacked on, almost as a compromise with the audience. Meanwhile, Alton’s existence is “explained,” but other intriguing threads (what was the deal with the hidden messages in the cult sermons?) are left dangling and out of reach.
This may sound like a negative review, but it’s only because the ending leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth as you leave the theater, and will likely be the subject of significant debate. Which is too bad, because Midnight Special is one of the more audacious genre films released by a studio in years. (The old axiom they don’t make em like this anymore may never have been more true.) Shannon and Edgerton in particular deliver intense, yet restrained performances (Shannon’s eyes are again his greatest asset) and the film is beautifully shot with one Amblin-era Spielbergian scene at a gas station that would make J.J. Abrams cream his jeans. There’s a lot to enjoy in Midnight Special and perhaps even more to respect (it was shot for a very fraction of the money most studio sci-fi movies are).
If you can prepare yourself for an inevitable letdown, you may find yourself settling in enjoying the ride. The best advice may just come from the very lyrics that inspired the title.