Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi story impresses Astrid Swan and Nick Triani in different ways. Midnight Special may seem familiar, but actually offers new ideas to a well worn genre.
Watching Midnight Special was a rare treat: both Nick and I on the couch watching the same film and a good old-fashioned cinema narrative at that. The movie was both magical, gritty, heavy and airy. It felt current and had some potent ideas that transcended the 1,5h duration, yet it leaned on a tradition of movie-making that felt familiar, stylish in a 1970s or early 80s way. Also the cast of actors was dependable: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver delivered in familiarity while Joel Edgerton and Jaeden Lieberher convinced me anew. Of course, the movie is astoundingly white with zero POC characters, which to me is unjustified in this kind of storytelling in 2017. My message to casting in Hollywood is: wake up!
Midnight Special is like an update on E.T. and Starman. It portrays the journey of parents and a child who have to let go of the family unit in order to save the child and let him ‘return’ to where he’s from – another planet or at least another layer of being on our planet. The movie operates as a kind of bearable narrative exploration of losing a child and/or dealing with a child’s serious illness. This is the most valuable asset of the film. Often movies dealing with this loss become either too much to bear or they fail to discuss the theme of loss and just justify some other narrative jumps with the death of a child. This film actually dwells on the letting go, the hurt, the relief, the mixed roles and the phases of accepting the inevitable. This is a good example of why making art of difficult experience is worth it.
This film actually dwells on the letting go, the hurt, the relief, the mixed roles and the phases of accepting the inevitable. This is a good example of why making art of difficult experience is worth it.
While Midnight Special offers the possibility to grieve to parents of ill or dead children (or parents who just deal with their fear), it also offers an imagined exoplanetary existence and the idea that there is life in different forms around us, though we don’t see it (yet). Against the backdrop of the recent NASA findings of Trappist–1 and the huge potential of life on other planets, the film creates an exciting imagined scenario. I think that it is important that we (imaginative creative artists, thinkers from all fields) keep narrating the possibilities, dreams, hopes and potential that we see in the idea that we are not alone here in this system of galaxies. Very soon our existence as simply biological humans may end and be replaced by AI + human co-existence, as one or possibly all that with exoplanetary influence. We don’t have to succumb to depicting only the worst case scenarios; it is crucial to imagine the potency of what is coming. This is where Midnight Special delivers beautiful impulses.
What a wonderful face Michael Shannon has. It breaks a lot of the default expectations for a ‘leading man’ type of face. Shannon has rugged looks, a chiseled-in-stone kind of face. Statuesque you could say, not rubbery or loose, but at its harshest, granite. Yet on film it’s so expressive. The eyes intense, the jawline stoic. It’s an honest face, which endears itself and adds much to the characters Shannon plays. I like Shannon a lot. The work has always been solid (and at times exceptional). He’s been around the block too, establishing himself in bit-part roles before being entrusted with meatier parts. Many probably noticed him from his work on Boardwalk Empire, his rather sadistic prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden tore up the screen with a quiet intensity. Intense is rather apt when referring to Shannon, it defines his screen presence. He outshone an impressive cast with his cameo in Revolutionary Road (2008) and added vulnerability to his bow in Take Shelter ( 2011). Midnight Special is the third movie Shannon has made with director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter the second), and again a sense of ambiguity is what he brings to Nichols’ subtle sci-fi.
On the face of it, what we get with Midnight Special is something familiar, especially if I’m to consider a couple of Steven Spielberg movies; E.T and especially Close Encounters of The Third Kind. But this also has some of Terminator‘s chase and the John Carpenter left field appeal of Starman. At its heart, Midnight Special is a homage to a specific kind of sci-fi movie, and in my head, the title itself could be referencing those drive-in sci-fi movie late shows from the 1950s (as well as the main protagonists special powers). Of course, if you’ve seen Nichols’ work, you soon realise he’s too subtle a director to just make a plain old sci-fi movie – Midnight Special is light on explanation, heavy in atmosphere and suggestion and definitely has its look in the art house. At the core is a relationship between an estranged father and son, and later Midnight Special becomes a weird hymn to the closeness of family.
At the core is a relationship between an estranged father and son, and later Midnight Special becomes a weird hymn to the closeness of family.
On the run from the FBI and a religious sect, the boy with special powers – 8-year-old Alton Meyer (well performed by Jaeden Lieberher) – is in hiding with estranged father (Shannon) and friend (a remarkably straight Joel Edgerton). Their mission to avoid all authorities and to arrive at an unknown to us location on a specific date and time. Throw in the mix and the chase the sympathetic NSA officer Paul Sevier (a wonderfully nerdy Adam Driver) and Alton’s mother (a mature Kirsten Dunst) and the premise of the drama is established. Whilst a final car-chase does shatter some of the mystery that came before it, Nichols still manages to imbue Midnight Special with enough otherworldly feeling and visual beauty to defy its genre limitations. Ultimately, there is something powerful and moving – and almost not quite there with Midnight Special. Nichols gives us plenty of that Shannon face, intense and thoughtful, to guide us on our way; solid, dependable and finally, with understanding.
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