Midnight Special is a a gripping, well-conceived and performed sci-fi chase movie that maintains momentum and intrigue throughout but stumbles at the finish line.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols demonstrated in his first sci-fi(ish) film, Take Shelter (2011), that he knows how to tell a story (although not necessarily how to finish one). He builds intrigue by setting up tense and mysterious situations, then drip-feeds his audience miserly rations of explanatory information at opportune moments in the course of the narrative. Nothing is quite as it seems, and just when you think you’re on to his drift he throws in a red herring or yanks the narrative steering wheel to one side to throw you off balance.
So it is with Midnight Special, which opens with what appears to be an abduction scene: two jittery armed men in a dark room with cardboard plastered over the windows survey the outside through a peephole in the door, while an apparently captive boy sits with a blanket over his head.
It turns out that the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has special powers of interest to the cops, the FBI and a religious cult that deifies him as their saviour from an imminent apocalyptic event. His father, Roy (Michael Shannon), an ex-member of the cult, has called on his old friend, renegade Texan trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), to help them escape their pursuers as they make for a site in Florida that Alton senses he must reach at an appointed time 3 days hence. Why? Well, all emerges in good time, and it ain’t what you think (whatever that is).
The setup makes for a tense chase flick that kicks off with the trio hurtling down the road, headlights off as they tear southwards with the assistance of infra-red night-vision equipment. The protection of Alton is their only priority; when a state trooper pulls them over they shoot him. Up go the stakes!
The nature of Alton’s powers, which are not fully within his control, is slowly revealed, most dramatically at a service station, when he seemingly unwittingly draws a satellite out of orbit. It is not clear just what is happening as it breaks up on entering the atmosphere, the fiery fragments of metal approaching through the night sky like a squadron of attacking spacecraft. With huge chunks of smoking debris crashing to ground around them, the trio flee to their car, narrowly escaping annihilation (of course). It’s a tremendously dramatic, well-managed sequence.
The emotional stakes rise when Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) joins them. As Alton’s date with destiny in Florida approaches, he comes to understand who he is and where he belongs – a startlingly unpredictable revelation that is heartbreaking for his parents and the emotional pinnacle of the story. Anyone who has experienced the pain of letting go of a loved one answering a calling will be moved.
Unfortunately, Nichols overreaches and pushes the film into CGI and imaginative excess at the end, when less would have been more. Overall, though, Midnight Special is a gripping, well-conceived and terrifically performed sci-fi chase movie that maintains momentum and intrigue throughout. Given this, the tripping up just before the finish line is forgivable, but does detract from what might otherwise have been a film to cherish.
Movie website: http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com/
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