Midnight Special is a indie sci-fi film written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst.
The story centres around Alton – a child who has extraordinary powers – as his parents try to protect him from numerous groups who seek to use the young boy's powers for their own gain. I'm quite the fan of writer/director Jeff Nichols as his previous films, especially Take Shelter, have all impressed. I also really like genre-bending films so the thought of Nichols taking on a sci-fi film was really exciting and for the most part the film delivers.
The most impressive thing about Midnight Special is it's tone – it's tense, mysterious and delivers on the latter with real moments of awe. Nichols's influences – most obviously 80s era Amblin and Steven Spielberg – are clear but he manages to inject the film with a well balanced hard edge and a good dollop of grit. The first scene is a perfect example of the this mood as without any exposition we're thrust into the suspenseful, harsh and tantalising world of the film. Due to this tight grip on tone and pace when the film finally starts giving answers to it's mysteries they're believable yet poetic and leave you wanting more – in a good way.
The sets, costuming and locations used in the film all have a brilliantly lived-in feel and are full of relatable, small little details which enhance this feeling of believability. The special effects are used sparsely (whether due to budgetary concerns or not) but effectively and the visualisation of Alton's powers perfectly encapsulate the unknown – equally conjuring up fear and wonder. There's also a great mixture of genres as the film is a sci-fi, fantasy and chase film with a strong emphasis on moody atmospherics and these work together seamlessly.
The cinematography is beautifully rich and dark for the frequent night scenes and there are a number of striking scenes set to the backdrop of the sun rising and setting. Nichols also carries on his visual fascination with the natural landscape of the South from Mud with some almost Malick-level shots of the landscape. The soundtrack, by frequent David Gordon Green collaborator David Wingo, is minimalist yet atmospheric and acts as a perfect accompaniment to the images up on the screen.
The actors, to their credit, fully commit to the high concept at hand and their performances are incredibly immersive. It was great seeing some older, more obscure faces among the crowd such as Bill Camp, Sam Shepard and David Jensen and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher is fascinating as Alton. I won't go into detail here but I also really liked the unveiling of the central mystery – it provided some striking imagery and concepts and felt just fresh enough to stand out.
There were, unfortunately, a few things which left me feeling dissatisfied with the film. The script and story, although alluring, never really digs far enough into any of it's themes. There are so many different ideas about parenthood, state control and..things I can't spoil here but none are developed with any real depth. Likewise the characters are skeletal as we learn only the very basics of their characteristics and dialogue is kept to a stilted minimum. I so wanted to learn more about these people and feel their frustrations, fears and desires but the film didn't let me near them.
There's also a severe lack of levity to the film – save for one or two jokes (which end up feeling out of place) the film is way too self-serious and could have benefited from a few lighter moments to break up the tension. Representation of women is lacking and when they are present they're either background, exposition fillers or, as in Dunst's character's case, filling out stereotypical patriarchal roles. There's also a disappointing lack of non-white characters which cements the feeling that this is the world as portrayed by, once again, straight, white, middle class males.
Midnight Special may be hampered by a cold, shallow approach but it's thrills and beauty are hard to deny. I'm going to give it a 6/10 and would recommend it to fans of Monsters, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Under The Skin and Close Encounters of the Third Kind,
Have you seen the Midnight Special and if so what did you think of it? As always, let me know in the comments below and make sure to subscribe for more reviews coming soon!