Midnight Special, 2016.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Jaeden Lieberher.
A sci-fi thriller exploring the government’s interest in the power a kidnapped boy possesses, and his journey that reconnects him with his father.
Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, delves into territory unfamiliar to the director, in the latest over-hyped film to hit the cinema screen this year. The acclaimed director of Mud and Take Shelter approaches the science fiction genre disjointedly, providing an original modern twist on the classic supernatural sci-fi genre that does more to weaken the genre than to strengthen it.
Nichols’ film explores the relationship between a boy and his parents who reconnect after years of separation, on a journey to secure the boys safety from the pursuit of the U.S. Government that are concerned about the powers he possesses, and a cult that believes his powers are pivotal in predicting significant religious events.
Running around the open landscape of rural America looking for the thin space between our world and Alton’s, Midnight Special is duplicitous in design. The most irritating thing about Nichols’ film is that it never fully settles into its own, it exists in the same twilight zone that Alton exists in, stretching itself between two heavily contrasted genres. Midnight Special has the structure of a realist chase film, which is dramatically juxtaposed against the film’s outlandish science fiction narrative. The way in which Midnight Special is filmed from the outset establishes a slow burning believable realism that builds a tense atmosphere that unravels into chaotic, unexplained supernatural science fiction. Many of the action sequences occur immediately, with no other build in tension than what’s already outlined in the tension of the narrative itself. The achieved effect is a plot that changes direction too regularly to effectively combine the two genres. The way each action sequence is evenly dispersed does little other than distract the audience from questioning the intention or plausibility of Alton’s abilities. The suspense Nichols creates by grounding part of the films framework in the real world, leads viewers along in blind compliance without permitting them to question why so many characters simply accept the fact Alton has the power to cause earthquakes, emit radiation and produce beams of light when taken ill or exposed to direct sunlight.
The soundtrack of Midnight Special is one of its most excellent qualities, providing the narrative with a counterpart that accentuates its most thrilling moments. Composer of the score, David Wingo, who has also previously collaborated with director Jeff Nichols on both Mud and Take Shelter, and who also intends to work with Nichols on his next film, Loving, captures the techno twilight feeling of what a modern-day science fiction should be. It is all the more disappointing that Nichols fails to achieve this himself in the incoherent storytelling and duel design of the film, but Wingo’s score does help in enabling the viewer to forget for a few moments that the narrative is a confusing and needless starting to point to explore the relationship between father and son.
The visual effects of the film are commendable when you take into consideration the limited budget Nichols had to work with. With a budget of only 18 million dollars, the frankly cheesy effects of Alton’s eyes emitting light and the meteor shower that he himself is responsible for, become excusable. However, the overall acting performance from the cast is mediocre. Michael Shannon’s role within the film emphasises the film’s few believable strengths, while also supporting the emotional credibility of Alton’s connection to our world by portraying a father who just wants to do right by his son. Both performances from Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver are flat, and fail in delivering the same believable sentimentality and interest felt towards Alton. Adam’s character Sevier lacks any explanation or motivation, which makes his reasons for helping Alton as ambiguous as his powers are in the first place, while Kirsten’s character lacks enough involvement in the script to regard her as anything more than a background character. There exists little to no emotional moments between Sarah and Alton, which does work thematically to emphasise the closeness between Michael Shannon’s character and Liberher’s character, but works against the overall emotion of the film.
Many have sought to praise the performance of child actor, Jaden Lieberher, for bringing a mysterious dimension to Alton’s character that parallels the unclear origins of his powers. In truth, Liberher’s character never effectively convinces us of his attachment to his parents or his disconnection from our world which is the main reason why this film lacks heart. For a director that has previously worked with a number of stronger child actors, and who also has a personal claim in telling a story centred on adolescence, innocence and a child’s relationship with their parents, Nichols’ decision to cast Jaden Lieberher was an unsafe one. 2015 and 2016 provided cinema viewers with innumerable performances from child actors that did more to captivate an audience’s attention than Lieberher achieves. To cite a few, Issiah Tootoosis’ role in The Revenant, Jacob Tremblay’s role in Room and Harvey Scrimshaw’s role in The Witch, all displayed the ingredients and talents of what child actors are capable of. The passive performance that Lieberher delivers contains all the same dexterity of emotion that Zack Mills possesses in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
Nichols’ film Midnight Special is an interesting modern take on a supernatural science fiction film that fails to ever find its path. The mystery it attempts to build is rendered more ambiguous than necessary, suggesting that Nichols’ phenomenal dramatic style might not be well suited for science fiction.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★