Midnight Special Review: Slow Burn Sci-Fi

Photo Credit:http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/03/midnight-special-movie-jeff-nichols-review

Midnight Special is like an old school Spielberg family sci-fi film without the warmth. Whether it needs that warmth to be a good film is the question.

Not wasting any time, director Jeff Nichols opens the film after Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped from a religious cult by his father (Michael Shannon) and his accomplice (Joel Edgarton). The cult has taken interest because they believe the boy to be their savior. Nichols, also serving as screenwriter, takes his time showing us why exactly. But unlike a certain superhero battle royale scheduled to hit theaters in mere days, Midnight Special doesn’t have the budget to show us Alton’s abilities in full. So, channeling the great sci-fi auteurs of the ’70s, Nichols turns that into the film’s greatest strength. Only showing Alton’s powers with his bright, glowing eyes and vague atmospheric changes, the film is a remarkably modern exercise in slow-burn sci-fi.

But Midnight Special is also very adult. It’s thematically mature and somber in tone, while not being afraid to showcase a little violence. With that, the warmth that makes characters in films like E.T. or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind is gone. Nichols doesn’t intend for his characters to be simply likable, he intends them to be complex. Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) appears cold and out of touch, while his father is consistently stern and driven, only occasionally breaking to express love and admiration to his son. Yet, a lot is left implied about these characters and who they are, which admittedly does some damage to the overall work. It’d be wrong to mistake the characters as thin, but their development is largely offscreen. Considering the film whizzes by in just over 100 minutes, some time could have been spent fleshing these people out a bit more.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the performances. Shannon and Dunst are at the top of their game here, managing to show us more of their characters than the script allows. Their fear and conviction drive the drama as much as their love for their very different son. Even when the script doesn’t do them any favors, the film still crackles thanks to them. Sure, things get a little too stoic at times and the first act is slow, but Midnight Special is still a high-brow sci-fi film that deserves an audience. It’s not nearly as masterful as last year’s Ex Machina, but it can stand just behind it as one of the most provocative films in the genre this decade. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *