A refreshingly restrained science fiction film, Midnight Special will give fans of the genre something to cheer about.
Science fiction isn’t just about nifty spaceships, weird aliens, and CGI monsters. It’s more than just entertainment, although it often gets the bad rap as such. Good science fiction asks questions about the world around us and then explores the unknown for answers. Great science fiction finds a way to relate truth in the awe-inspiring universe back to our small, insignificant little lives. I’ve always felt, therefore, that the most successful science fiction films are those with a small scope. By not getting distracted by the possibilities of what-if, those great science fiction films can focus on what is. Midnight Special is one of those films that doesn’t get caught up in the spectacle that science fiction often becomes. It is ultimately a heartwarming story about the relationship between a boy and his parents. We see the extraordinary lengths that a father and a mother will go through in order to help their child. The fact that this child is extraordinary himself makes it that much more interesting.
The term “subtle science fiction” has been thrown around thus far when describing Midnight Special. I would disagree. For subtle science fiction, look no further than Nichols’ excellent Take Shelter. Midnight Special is instead classic science fiction. It has all the elements of the genre and isn’t hiding any of them. The film’s most epic moments are visual-driven, not based on psychological confliction. Right from the beginning we know that something is not right, there’s no confusion over details. Government interference is an old trite, but effective in hammering home the idea of misunderstanding the universe around us and what is truly the most important. It is a refreshingly simple story that is built around elements of our modern day life. It doesn’t require significant suspension of disbelief to be applicable. Instead, it finds a good balance between the real and the unreal to deliver its message in a genuinely interesting and entertaining manner.
Entertainment Value: Midnight Special is a throwback of sorts to science fiction films of the past. It rides a little bit on nostalgia, but has enough originality and genuinely entertaining moments to stand by itself. Like Super 8, it relishes in early-Spielberg science fiction, going so far as to relish in lense flares and blurry lighting in order to create a similar mood. The story even feels a bit similar to Sugarland Express. But there’s also a fascination with the more modern focus on extraordinary powers in ordinary hands. Fans of superhero films will surely find something to admire in that regard. There are a number of great special-effects driven sequences, and they are easily the most eye-catching moments in the film, but they don’t dominate and the film doesn’t rely on them to capture your attention. The darkness and purposeful low-key behavior of the main characters may feel somewhat constricting, and indeed the film doesn’t move quick, but it helps that it starts off with the story underway and is always moving forward. Good (4.0/50)
Story: The film ultimately unfolds like an adventure, with a goal and destination in mind right from the beginning, but the meaning and purpose of such a journey only becomes more clear as events depicted play out. The script does a great job of cutting back and forth between a few different storylines at key moments, allowing the audience to extract key details for them to figure out the major clues. In this respect, the structure of thr film is well written, but it doeslack somewhat in explaining the details. The characters never really seem to have a lot to say to each other, but the acting is good enough to make up for it. Perhaps the biggest casualty of the film’s forward-looking perspective and constant drive is that minor characters and storylines introduced at the beginning of the film are left behind as soon as they have fulfilled their purpose of adding context to the main story line. Similarly, the rather straight-forward aspect of the film is great for making it engaging and exciting, but doesn’t really allow for much depth or exploration of the ideas it uncovers. Okay (3.0/5.0)
Acting: This film has a great cast. Michael Shannon turns in another high-caliber performance as a concerned father, doing what he thinks is right to help out his child. Shannon’s acting helps to create the heart of the film because he is equally adept on his own and with the rest of the cast. Through his performance we really see the confliction in his mind as he is confronted by one dilemma after another. He keeps telling his child that everything will be alright, but we see the doubt in his eyes. Joel Edgerton plays a friend who is there to help, and we see his commitment to the task and loyalty despite not fully understanding the situation. He works well with Shannon, having a comfort in the character that feels as if these two men really did grow up together and are connected through what they have been through. Kristen Dunst also does a commendable job as the mother, attempting to stay strong for the sake of her child despite all the turmoil going on around her. Jaeden Lieberher plays the child, and is perfect for the role. His cool confidence in what he is and his ability to stay strong when the adults around him are frightened fits well with who his character is supposed to be. Finally, Adam Driver puts in a likable performance as a NSA agent trying to figure out what is happening. He has some of the most interesting and genuinely funny moments in the film, which really helps to break up some of the tension. Good (4.0/5.0)
Direction: Jeff Nichol’s talents and flexibility as director are on display in Midnight Special. Here is a film that, despite its somewhat straightforward premise and plot, manages to show competency in many different, often contrasting areas. The focus on the story in on the family making their escape, yet Nichols’ film doesn’t feel small. Large, sweeping establishing shots help to convince the audience of everything this family is up against, and the odds seem insurmountable. As we’ve seen seen in his previous films, Nichols gets great performances out of his actors, and in doing so makes a very emotional film. But for every sad moment, he manages to capture a happy one. Adam Driver’s character is a source for some of the comedy, which typically would be associated with dumb comic-relief characters, but Nichols makes sure to first establish the character as someone knowledgeable. And despite all of the interesting and impressive sci-fi staple visuals, Nichols isn’t afraid to cut back to close ups of his characters. Like the early Spielberg films on which this one is clearly influenced by, Nichols often focuses on his character's facial expressions rather than turning the camera to see what they are looking at. It is a reminder that it is these people and their struggles which are the most important part of the film, not the special effects. Good (4.5/5.0)
Production: Midnight Special really comes alive through its picture and sound. As I had mentioned previously, it uses lense flares and a soft image quality to make it seem like a throwback to 70’s era Spielberg, but it also has moments of brilliant colors and clarity. Overall, the film’s dark pallet is handled well, not allowing lights to overwhelm the picture or details to become obscured in the shadows. The special effects are also fitting, encompassing both the old-school vibe yet showing us something we haven’t seen before. The music also goes along with the contrast in the film, adding to the dark, tense moments, but also being inspirational and grand when things open up. In the end, Midnight Special does well what it set out to do. It’s an interesting science fiction film in the classic mold. Although it provides more emotional moments than thought-provoking ones, the execution and talent involved make for one beautiful and interesting film that is a must see. Good (4.5/5.0)
What’s Bad: Story is not all that complicated, leaves some ideas and side-stories on the table, ending could have been stronger.