Only four films into his career Jeff Nichols has set himself up as a man to watch. The southern drawl of Mud played a big part in Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance and at the age of 37, he could lay claim to being one of the most intriguing directors to come out of America in a while. Midnight Special is his most ambitious film to date and sees him taking a step into science fiction.
Except maybe it doesn’t. Yes, there is a small boy with glowing eyes at the centre of this film but the science fiction is purely there to provide a mystery. What this film is really about is the relationship between a son and his father. The aforementioned glowing eyes lad, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and Roy (Michael Shannon) as they go on the run from obsessive cults and the federal government.
There is an argument to be made that the last thing Hollywood needs is more father-son stories and this year alone we have already seen several. Kirsten Dunst – who plays Sarah, Alton’s mother – is certainly little more than a peripheral figure here. Part of the plot but in a role that could literally have been played by anyone. However, it is hard to shake the feeling that this is a very personal film. All the bright lights and fancy sci-fi window dressing can’t hide that this is a message from Jeff Nichols to his son.
It’s a message wrapped up in the setting of an Amblin style adventure. Children with stories surrounded by adults that just don’t understand what they are trying to do. The science-fiction elements are closer to Close Encounter of the Third Kind than War of the Worlds, and you spend most of the running-time trying to unpick the mystery at its heart. It is a mystery that will leave many feeling cold. If you are looking for a film to take your hand and lead you through its story, then this isn’t for you.
That’s a feeling that extends to its characters. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas spends the film aiding Roy and Alton and yet you are never sure exactly why. Few people do mysterious better than Edgerton and trying to figure out his motivations is an interesting challenge. One of those people may well be Adam Driver, an NSA agents who leads the chase of Alton but whom you can never exactly figure out what side he is on. Driver is currently on one hell of a run and if he can keep this up you can only assume he is going to be one of the biggest stars in the world.
If you are looking for a crash, bang, wallop science fiction adventure then Midnight Special is not the film for you. It is a slow thought out adventure that to be honest loses its way a bit towards the end. However, there is more than enough here to keep fans of smart science fiction happy and if you are looking for an antidote to blockbusters in which giant robots hit each other with things then this film will be exactly what you need.