Michael Shannon holds Jaeden Liberher in Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special.

‘Midnight Special’ is a perplexing but ambitious piece of sci-fi

Jeff Nichols has established himself as a disciplined, but old fashioned hard realist of a filmmaker whose work reflect that of modern american folktales. His first three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter,  and  Mud, all take place in the south in contemporary times, but with a feel of the late ’80s. They are all rooted in complex moral issues, delivered with an element of mysticism and even spirituality. Still, they are very stripped down stories that feel like leftovers from a Flannery O’Connor collection. So it was a little surprising when the small time indie filmmaker announced that his next film was to be a studio produced work of science fiction. But such was the case with Midnight Special.

The story however, for being of a science fiction persuasion, did sound even from the outset like it would fit nicely inside Nichols’ repertoire. When they first announced the film, all they said about the story was it involved a young boy on t he run with his father. I was imagining something post-apocalyptic. This fits right in line with Mud, another child centered story dealing without outlaws a la Stand By Me. My conception was that this would be another small scale fable in the south, executed in the classically minimalist, realist, Jeff Nichols style with the sci-fi elements being surface level. I expected it to feel like a small film. And it does feel intimate with its characters. But by the time the third act drops, you realize you’ve seen a film of vast ambition and scope, one whose reach may exceed its admirably bold grasp.

Midnight Special is the film I expected it to be for the first hour or so. It opens with reports of a young child named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) being kidnapped by a man named Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). We then see the two together, though Meyer is clearly going along with Tomlin without much resistance. The two seem close even. Then we see the pastor of a church (Sam Shepherd) seem very distressed by the news. As he walks out to his cult-like congregation, FBI agents raid the place and load everyone onto trucks.

We learn that recently many members of the church had purchased guns, which had aroused the suspicion of the FBI. While the pastor is being interrogated, a special consultant interrupts and starts a new line of questioning geared towards the boy who has been kidnapped. Evidently this boy experiences visions which contain shielded government information, which are then being published as sermons. This consultant, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), is both enchanted and mystified by the reports the church members give of Alton Meyer.

This is the rough setup. The FBI ends up having to let the congregation go, returning to their practice at the facility known as “The Ranch.” Naturally they want the boy wonder they see as their savior back. At the same time, the FBI is desperately in pursuit of both a kidnapping case that crosses state borders and a child who knows guarded government secrets. For this stretch, Midnight Special really feels like a Jeff Nichols film, even with the boy’s odd supernatural bursts of light beams from his eyes, which I’m sure you’ve seen in the trailers by now.

Jaeden Lieberher has some weird eyes in Midnight Special.

Jeff Nichols has said that this is an homage to the films of the ’80s such as Starman, E. T., The Thing, The Fog, and to go a little earlier, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like those films, for the first two thirds, Midnight Special is a taught thriller delivering riveting scenes that we’ve never seen before at a breathtaking yet restrained rate. The story reveals itself to us naturally as with Nichols’ previous films. And the tone is equal parts Spielberg and Carpenter, as you would expect from the list of influences mentioned. This sense of homage in Midnight Special allows Nichols’ to get away with elements such as intense rays of light bursting from the child’s eyes or massive CGI bubbles that cover entire fields, or even entire continents. It feels appropriately comic-booky in the best way possible, without diminishing the philosophical punch of the film.

Then there’s that third act. Admittedly, almost everything the film drops in its finale is revealed about thirty minutes prior. So in some sense, it shouldn’t be all that shocking. That said, there are a few shots that indicate more still is revealed, or better yet, left appropriately ambiguous. I need a few more viewings to drop a definitive reading on the film. But for now what I can say without spoiling anything is that Midnight Special might not be what you were expecting from the trailers or from a filmmaker like Nichols.

In its finale, Midnight Special reaches for spectacle and grandiose spiritual implications. Still within the realms of Nichols’ classically allegorical style, Midnight Special reaches for the realms of works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and A. I. This is pretty ambitious coming from a first time with a studio project filmmaker given eighteen million, which is about ten to twenty percent the adjusted cost of those other films. My point is that Midnight Special goes for something a lot bigger than I might have expected from the suggested narrative, the size of the film, or even the first two thirds of it. So despite my saying the film doesn’t have anything up its sleeve in the third act, I can’t say how it presents itself isn’t pretty eye-opening.

The potential issues I have with the film revolve around how plainly Alton Meyer reveals the last act of the film a little early on and how much it shows just to show in its third act. A good comparison for this finale feels like the two different versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When it was initially released, the end involved the protagonists walking into an uncertain future, an ominous ship with limited details provided. The second ending was just to satisfy viewers and show the interior of the ship. It’s unnecessary, not that impressive, and it ruins the infinite possibilities created by viewer’s imaginations in the previous version.

Similarly, what we see at the end of Midnight Special isn’t necessarily wrong narratively. But its done in such a way that feels potentially at discord with the film. Although it is all beautiful, imagine the terror and beauty of not seeing in this instance. With such a relevant example on hand, I’m thinking Nichols might have gone too far with some of the imagery.

That said, going grandiose supports a number of intriguing religious images and themes in the film. It feels warranted considering how tightly Nichols has created the mythos of this world. Whether the Ranch is right about Alton Meyer being some kind of savior or not, he is endowed with some powerful gift that allows him to make followers of everyone who he encounters. His encounters involve beams of light connecting his eyes to another’s. From then on that person has seen, felt, and experienced something. To me, this feels like a literal embodiment of how people refer to those who experience sudden alterations in behavior due to a spiritual encounter as “having seen the light.”

To add to that, the film’s title is derived from a classic folk song of the same name. The chorus is as follows:

Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me
Let the Midnight Special shine a everlovin’ light on me

The midnight special of the song refers to a train and is often associated with redemption, according to the song’s wikipedia page. At any rate I think that is all you need to apply a basic interpretation to the film Midnight Special.

I intend to write further about some of Midnight Special‘s qualities as a religious allegory and how it fits in a long tradition of science fiction films that I have decided to dub “amiable alien” films. For now though I will stick to a traditional review and end on the note that while the film threw me through a loop with its closing act in the first go round, it also impressed me enough in relevant ways to justify it. This can only result in me needing further viewings to properly assess it. Until then, I recommend any and all go into this film open to the bizarre and ready to appreciate when ambition so sincere is in such a good place.

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