Midnight Special (2016) review

MidnightSpecial

This review contains spoilers.

One thing you might hear is that this Midnight Special is some kind of indie take on the kind of alien movies we watched when we were kids, stuff like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Starman. If that was the intention, then director/writer Jeff Nichols certainly saw fit to remove any traces of humour, lightness or charm from his approach. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that – you know, I like serious movies. However what irritates me about this film is that it’s just so sodding obtuse – Midnight Special doesn’t even seem to bother acknowledging the many plot holes in its narrative, simply preferring to ride over them without expecting us to notice the dip in the journey. By the end, the film’s certainly been a bumpy ride, but not the kind the filmmakers had intended. If they had, then fuck me they must be difficult people.

Alton (Jaeden Liebeher) is an eight year boy with mysterious special powers who seems to have been held against his parents’ wishes in some religious commune. When the film starts he has already been rescued by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and they are on the run, with the help of Roy’s childhood buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton) – the FBI are after them too. The commune, led by Sam Shephard’s pastor, believed that Alton’s bilingual streams of tongue-speaking were signs or messages of some sort. He also can’t be exposed to the sunlight. Later on, it turns out that was never really a problem. One thing for sure is that he emit beams of light from his eyes. It’s cool, like when that bloke with the comedy accent did it in Ghostbusters II – not as scary as that admittedly, but certainly more destructive. There may be something profound in his torch-eyes condition though, because some bloke can’t resist removing the kid’s goggles and staring directly into them. So, what’s the explanation for that? Is this kid an alien? I mean, his birth parents are human, so how does that work out? The film does not explain any of that. Alton’s mother is played by Kirsten Dunst, who is reunited with her son after Roy and Lucas bring him to her, shortly after Alton brings down a satellite that was spying on him, the debris of which kills absolutely no-one. Phew, wouldn’t want to make our little kid utterly unlikable if something like that had happened. Through some decoding of the co-ordinates from Alton’s visions, Roy has worked out just where it is they need to go. The FBI’s lead Alton expert, played by Rylo Ken (much friendlier this time), has worked this out too. We, the viewer, have not. It doesn’t matter – what matters is getting Alton to the spot on Earth where it will all come together.

There’s a lot that’s special about Midnight Special. The nocturnal mood and the atmosphere in the first half is moodily powerful – at times the runaway element combined with the characters living a life on the road with only petrol stations and motels (where they have to board up the windows to block out the daylight) reminded me of the vampire movie Near Dark from 1987. When daylight does make a proper entrance in the film, it’s like a shroud (or tinted goggles in this film’s case) has been removed from your eyes. It’s lovely. The short, sharp punches of action are brilliant and intense. The performances are spot-on – Michael Shannon is doing his Shannon thing with added paternalism, but he does it so well. I believe him and Dunst as parents. Liebeher is good. Edgerton is good. Adam Driver is good. Sam Shephard is good. These are all good actors. It’s not until some time that I realised just how good they are, because these characters are not very interesting, and they have essentially been given superficial weight by some very solid performances. They don’t even have erm.. personalities. The kid is just somebody to rescued, hidden, carried and chased after. There’s nothing else to him.

Obviously this is a one-track situation, a goal-driven plot – get the kid to the magic spot, so maybe these characters aren’t going to have time to show us what they enjoy doing in their spare time, or have time to have a laugh and a chuckle, or show us their quirks, and I guess in real life we’d be this determined and serious. There wouldn’t be anytime for eating, dancing, pranking or stuff like that. But I just ended up not giving a shit. The Joel Edgerton character is pretty much pointless when you think about it. We could have focused on the relationship between mother and father, but instead we have an old friend thrown into it who doesn’t really add anything besides access to bulletproof vests, and his presence cuts into any time the parents could have spent together, or developed some kind of screen relationship we could have been interested in. As for poor Sam Shephard’s pastor – well, one of the more interesting characters is completely forgotten about in quick time.

At the time of watching this though, I wasn’t too bothered by this because I thought, maybe it’ll all come together at the end – I had heard that the final stretch would be something close to a mindblower, but it isn’t really, just a lot of pretty architecture which if the filmmakers had been smart, could have been named Alton Towers – maybe our best theme park is just not that well known outside of the UK. It’s a seemingly game-changing moment for the population of Texas at the very least, but the film doesn’t seem to care that loads of people have just witnessed extra-terrestrial life on Earth and their lives have been permanently altered. No, it’s all about the family, that family who we never really get to know because despite the seeming abundance of thoughtful moments, dramatic reflection and moody silence, this is a film that left me unmoved, cold and, thanks to the lack of explanation or reason, irritated too.

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