Jeff Nichols, the electrifying writer/director behind indie hits Take Shelter and Mud, brings us his latest high-concept film: Midnight Special, a unique look at the perils and responsibilities of superpowers that boasts an impressive cast – many of whom have starred in superhero blockbusters of their own – that includes Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard. It’s just a shame the end result isn’t nearly as super as it might have been.
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is unlike any other eight year-old boy; he possesses strange powers that inhibit his ability to lead a normal life under sunlight, causing his eyes to spew a stream of blinding white-light and force him to wear special goggles (think Cyclops from the X-Men). His powers seem to be connected to the digital world as well as he’s able to tune in to radio stations and disrupt electronics. Whether these powers are a blessing or curse is anyone’s guess, but now they want to bring young Alton in for questioning – and possibly worse.
Agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) is responsible for locating the whereabouts of Alton, while at the same time learning about the mysteries of that very same boy from the denizens of the town he was taken from. The wild manhunt doesn’t just include the authorities; it rouses the interest of a zealous religious cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).
Helping him evade capture is his father Roy (Michael Shannon), loose canon Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy’s ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Together they attempt to transport young Alton to a mysterious location of special importance, one that could have serious supernatural or ecclesiastical implications for all those involved. It won’t be easy as their faces are plastered all over the news, making it difficult to stop for gas and lodging.
Midnight Special is one of those films where an interesting concept never really comes into full fruition, seemingly content with merely being a good idea that’s poorly executed. The film is too enthralled by its own idea that it forgets there’s a story that needs to be told, instead focusing entirely too much time on the wonder of Alton’s powers while disregarding its bland characters. Apart from transporting Alton to his rendezvous point, there seems to be little interest in any of the characters involved, each enthralled by the boy’s powers with idolatrous fascination to be anything more than his facilitator.
However, the film’s molasses-like pacing does give way to particular moments that will rattle the viewer awake; such scenes include a meteor shower at a gas station and the other an unexpected shootout. But these are little more than false promises to what might have been as it meanders along to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Apart from a real narrative, what the film ultimately lacks if any life, energy, or insight; there are few moments of any real significance or thematic cohesion. Is this really an allegory about Christianity, faith, and idolatry? Who knows. It could be about a plethora of different things, none of which is ever explored with any real interest. The film takes far too long to reach whatever point it’s striving to make, teasing Alton’s true potential throughout, yet never contributing to the overall theme or purpose. Nothing is clarified at any point during the proceedings, leaving viewers as clueless by the closing credits as they were at the beginning.
By the time Midnight Special bows out it’s clear the film is anything but special. Considering the talent involved one might be forgiven in assuming it would offer a more cinematic punch, but the ambiguous and inexplicable ending leaves a bitter aftertaste, not the thought provoking ending Nichols likely imagined. It’s a shame as this is a film I really wanted to enjoy, but looking past the weak structure and poor characters would’ve required a few superpowers of my own.