A movie about a kid who shoots beams of piercing blue light from his eyeballs does not, in theory, sound like something I’d enjoy.
Aside from obvious winners like Harry Potter and Star Wars, science fiction is just not my genre. I find it difficult to feel connected to or even care much about characters who are of some make-believe species or live on another planet, especially because sci-fi films often rely more on plot than on character development.
But of course there are exceptions. “Midnight Special” is one of them; the movie left me with a new impression of the genre and for a minute made me believe, intoxicated by the big screen and brilliant storytelling, that what I was watching was real.
It opens with eight-year old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) sitting on the floor of a dingy motel room, reading comic books with a sheet over his head and blue goggles over his eyes.
He’s with two men — his kidnappers, as a TV news broadcast playing in the same room quickly reveals — who tell him to get up and head to their car outside. The title of the film flashes in large white letters over a dark image of the car driving off into the night. In minutes, we’ve been invited on a road chase.
This first scene is a perfect example of how the entire plot unfolds with hardly any explanation. There’s no narrative voiceover, or even much dialogue between the three main characters, to tell us who this kid is, why he’s been kidnapped or what his powers are. Without seeing the trailer beforehand, “Midnight Special” would play as a piece of realism rather than sci-fi until about the twenty-minute mark.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to give an opinion on the movie without spoiling some important plot points. So if you want to go in blind, this is a good place to stop reading.
Early on, we find out that one of the kidnappers is Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), who has taken him from a religious cult where the child had been worshipped for his gift of “seeing.” The other man is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a Texas state trooper and childhood friend of Roy’s. Alton’s mom, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), joins them not long into the film.
“Midnight Special” is about the tug-of-war for this kid, whose powers are worth something different to everyone. The religious cult members want him because his words are supposedly sent from God; the U.S. government wants him because he seems to know classified federal information; his parents want him because, you know, they’re his parents.
This is the fourth film by director and writer Jeff Nichols, and it marks the first time he’s ever worked with science fiction. That said, the feel of this movie doesn’t dramatically differ from his previous three. His most recent release before this, “Mud” (2012), also focused on childhood and was driven heavily by mystery and suspense.
And though Alton’s powers—which I won’t go into much detail about—are a pivotal part of the story, much of the film’s focus is put on the relationship between Alton and his parents.
Because Alton is special, and is also struggling with a possibly fatal sickness, Roy and Sarah are faced with the sad reality that their son may not be able to stay with them much longer in this world.
Each of the actors is so spot-on in their role that it’s easy to forget there’s any acting going on at all. Michael Shannon’s performance in particular is a standout—unsurprising, as he has had a large role in each of Nichols’ other three films. The biggest comic relief comes from Adam Driver, who plays an FBI investigator with a strange connection to Alton. And the child actor who plays Alton is adorable, kinda creepy and entirely convincing in his role.
There’s something to be said too for the cinematography, which takes desolate rural Texas landscapes and turns them into vivid scenes of color and movement. Even with Nichols’ decision to leave out a clear narrative voice, the story is easy to follow simply through visual cues.
Depending on your level of affinity for sci-fi-weirdness, the ending of the film will elicit either a smile or an eye roll. As I said, I don’t normally go for the otherworldly, but I couldn’t imagine a more fitting end to what I thought was one of the best movies of the year—an opinion I’m positive I’ll maintain even though it’s only March.
The best kinds of movies, I think, are the ones that almost make you forget you’re watching a movie. That’s what “Midnight Special” does—it plunges you into the middle of a story you have no familiarity with and relies on your intelligence to put the pieces together. So much is packed in to these two hours that even my spoiler-heavy review shouldn’t ruin it for you.