A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.
Midnight Special or the buzziest title of this year's Berlin Film Festival. Still settled under a larger than life mysterious Southern sky, still lead by Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols' cinematography welcomes sci-fi elements. Nichols new film is closer to Take Shelter as it went beyond the mysteries of the human heart and into a more cosmic enigma. Here Jeff Nichols pays transporting homage to the rich tradition, spanning the late 70s through the mid-80s, of intelligent sci-fi, emotionally grounded in relatable human dynamics. Midnight Special is the first movie of the director to be produced by a major studio (Warner Bros.); though this film is as stylish as all of his former pictures, even if this time around he must have been more aware of criticism and must have had to defend his ideas and choices to impose his point of view again and again.
What if there were something new in the world? And what if it was your son? The main theme of this movie is a father and son journey, literally on the road, with a father trying to understand where his son has to be and helping him to go there. I've been immediately interested by the title of this film and after some googling, I found the reference to the folk song covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which featured memorably in the opening scene of the 1983 Steven Spielberg big screen spin off of The Twilight Zone. There's a wave of young filmmakers brought up in the 70s and 80s blockbusters that changed the Hollywood system, who are doing their best to replicate them. J.J. Abrams already managed to work alongside Steven Spielberg himself for throwback fantasy Super 8 before taking charge of the rebooted Star Wars franchise - and others such as Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson or Joss Whedon are clear students of the multiplex masters who birthed the event movie.
Characters are not superheroes, but looked upon as normal people. Once again, in constant collaborator Michael Shannon, Nichols finds the perfect engine to power this delicate story forward - was ever any actor so able to project an aura of utter conviction, even when faced with the impossibly wrenching eventuality that the only way to save his child might be to let him go? Alton embodies the never ending possibilities of the universe. No one ever experienced what comes after death (well, no one came back to tell us anyway), other dimensions or metaphysical appearances of God. None of these things are tangible, but men want them to exist. Alton is the personification of this need.
Moreover, Jeff Nichols did not forget that we as an audience are smart people. We've grown up with movies, we've been taught to pay attention to what was happening on screen; as soon as a new character emerged, we began instinctively to make supposition and hypothesis on his link and relationship with other characters and his environment. He relies on the ability of an intelligent audience to make sense of what is happening. This film is made almost entirely of mysteries and none of which are resolved by the final scenes. The bigger the questions you ask are, the less likely it is you can answer them in any satisfying, definitive way and the human, existential, metaphysical questions that Midnight Special poses, if you care to look for them, are enormous.
The visual effects heavy sequences raises more questions than it answers. Was Alton an alien, an angel, a more highly evolved human being? Was he going to heaven, or another dimension? The explanation is ultimately less important than what Alton's journey succeeds in illustrating about human nature - demonstrating just how desperately some people want to believe. In fact, the sci-fi elements of the film have an organic style, they look quite real, inspiration of movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg or even Starman by John Carpenter with their opaque dark night. Religious themes aside, though, Nichols draws on both the paranoia of those 1980s films - the feeling that the government is a largely faceless, monolithic force, out to control and suppress all forms of wonder - and on Steven Spielberg's blockbusters filmmaking rhythms. Plus, family is a central theme in all Jeff Nichols' movies as well as couple relationships. Always a contradictory love or even an impossibly love, a love that has to fight in order to survive. A real tragic dimension as well as romantic is present in this vision of love. And I like it, I grew up with Disney movies so I pretty much have messed up relationship goals. However, I really do believe in true love and soul mate. I've always wanted to know what happens after the happy ending of romantic comedies, because life doesn't end at that particular moment right? This always intrigued me. Yes I'm a romantic, but a realistic romantic and after all, I really do think that Jeff Nichols must be one too. It's this fundamental human component that ultimately makes Midnight Special such a fascinating ride.
The film also benefits from the formal elegance of its two acts structure. Cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo have helped give Nichols' films a cohesive look that goes beyond their consistently grim tones. Finally, the very last shot of Michael Shannon, a close up on his face, there's something in his eyes that is very clever from the part of the director, it somehow shows the evolution of his character from his role in Take Shelter to this film. It's the kind of wrap-up that doesn't provide closure so much as it unlocks a dozen new doors.
Overall, Jeff Nichols produced a richly structured story that's more about character emotions than about the life-or-death battles those emotions push them toward. A story that meant so much more than the things that happened within it.