Review: Hollywood Desperately Needs More Movies Like ‘Midnight Special’

Exciting things can happen when you're kept in the dark.

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Let’s get the homage stuff out of the way first. Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller Midnight Special channels the wide-eyed awe of early Steven Spielberg. It’s especially reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the scarier, government-experimentation bits of ET. It shares a fair bit of uncanny road-movie DNA with John Carpenter’s Starman, as well as the quiet mystery seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s early films.

An uncharitable critic could say Nichols is just another Spielberg fanboy, aping his hero like JJ Abrams does. Or that he’s waxing nostalgic more generally — quoting the 1980s sci-fi he grew up on, like Joe Dante’s Explorers, Randal Kleiser’s Flight of the Navigator and Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter. In a promotional featurette, co-star Kirsten Dunst says, “Midnight Special is the kind of movie that they just don’t make anymore.”

But the reason Midnight Special feels nostalgic is that blockbuster cinema used to invest in mystery and emotion. The best films make us confront our own values and vulnerabilities, and we leave the cinema feeling energised and profoundly moved. These days, Hollywood studios rarely trust directors to make films like this, and rarely trust audiences to watch them.

I haven’t loved a film as viscerally as I love Midnight Special since I saw Whiplash. It’s wonderful. It deserves to be a massive multiplex hit; but perhaps the space between indie and tentpole cinema has atrophied so severely that it’ll only be seen as Nichols’ job application for another, more contemporary kind of film.

The Cinematic Power Of Yearning

Today’s popular franchises seem to locate awe only in extremely large objects and spectacular mayhem; there’s little mystery in their stories of domination and rebellion. Plucky Scooby gangs face off against oppressive ideologies. Superbeings assert their might over blameless bricks and mortar. Spies and criminals are locked in nihilistic regimes of earpieces and headsets, krav maga and parkour. We know the character archetypes and the dramatic trajectories before we even sit down in the cinema.

What makes Midnight Special so beguiling — and unusual — is that it never spells things out. Scenes will end just a little earlier and more ambiguously than in other films, it largely eschews info-dumps, and it puts you in the same headspace as its characters. Everyone’s just trying to figure out what’s happening and are dazed by how quickly their ideas about the world are being challenged. The film’s engine in all this is yearning: both within its story and for its viewers. As a result, it succeeds beautifully on the level of mood — aided by the hypnotic piano melodies and ominously rumbling synths of David Wingo’s amazing soundtrack.

I’m usually quite blasé about spoilers because in most cases simply knowing what happens in a film, book or TV series is completely different to watching it unfold. But Midnight Special relies on the experience of mystery. It begins with two armed men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), on the run with Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who’s exceptionally sensitive to light and sound stimuli. Alton can only travel by night, wearing tinted swimming goggles. Rooms in which he sleeps must be light-proofed with cardboard.

Everyone in this film has a different idea of who Alton is. To Roy and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), he’s their beloved son. To Caleb Meyer (Sam Shepard), the leader of a religious cult called the Ranch, Alton is a prophet of an impending rapture. And to national security analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), Alton is a brilliant but nebulous threat. What Alton can do, how he does it and why, where he’s going and what he’ll do there remain unexplained to the very end.

Spoiler: he’s not Ironman.

As filmgoers, we’re groomed to expect that every thriller has a cathartic resolution: a final showdown, a daring escape, a prestige. If there’s mystery, we want it solved. Accordingly, after spending the film in a state of intense, anxious yearning I found Midnight Special’s climax a little anticlimactic — an odd retreat into a bland, conventional sci-fi vocabulary.

This is something Nichols has addressed. “My stated goal as a filmmaker is not to just tie up a plot for you. It’s to transmit an emotion to you,” he said in a recent interview with GQ. “Endings don’t have anything to do with what your movie is about.”

Later, I thought back on Midnight Special and realised that even after its final ‘reveal’, its characters are still searching. Despite its special effects, car chases and explosions, this film springs from somewhere ordinary, messy and deeply felt rather than narrating something universal, coherent and easy to articulate. What matters, ultimately, isn’t what Alton can do or why he’s that way, but the lasting feeling he bestows, like a gift, on those who meet him.

Love As Comfort In The Darkness

It’s no accident that Alton becomes the object of worship for a religious cult. Humans have always wanted to believe: to feel certain something is true without needing to know why or how. We cling to faith because it helps us navigate a world whose meaning is often dark to us. Striving to explain to Sevier what makes Alton special, one Ranch member says Alton offered her a feeling of “comfort”.

In mainstream cinema, otherworldly ideas are often expressed using the vocabulary of love. Love is a force that can transcend time and space, matter and consciousness. It’s the Fifth Element, the missing piece. This is easy to mock, and the wide-eyed tone of many of these films can come across as very silly.

Midnight Special is comforting without being Spielberg-sentimental. Like Nichols’ previous films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, it’s stuffed full of the textures of the American heartland. The half-finished paintwork and rumbling engine of a 1970s muscle car — clearly some dude’s beloved weekend project commandeered as a getaway vehicle. The pastel prairie dresses and elaborately braided bouffant hairstyles that have been public shorthand for female religious cult members ever since the arrest of Warren Jeffs.

But, instead of leaning on well-worn, sentimental tactics for representing emotions, such as the slow zoom into an awestruck ‘Spielberg face’, Nichols and his regular cinematographer Adam Stone explore emotional resonances through light. Roy and Lucas swaddle Alton in darkness; the Ranch members meet under chilly fluorescents; a minor character is cornered when he switches on his kitchen light; Roy and Sarah swell with love for their son under warm lamplight, and feel afraid for (and of) him in a twilit motel room. Sunset and sunrise lend the film a ritualistic momentum: an expansion of possibility and a source of danger.

In the namesake folk song, oncoming train headlights comfort prisoners with dreams of escape — even through death by suicide. Midnight Special argues that love can “shine a light” on us — caring for another person can be a source of comfort, even as we recognise that we can never completely understand each other.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton says to Roy. “I like worrying about you,” Roy replies. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton, that’s the deal.”

In life, as in a cinema, we’re all in the dark. Sometimes the vast mystery of it feels dizzying. Today, Hollywood doesn’t like such uncertainties. Its idea of a ‘dark’ mood is a toxic vision of embittered, traumatised people lashing out at the world. But Midnight Special shows that we shine light into the darkness because we yearn for something good.

Midnight Special is in cinemas from today.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.