The joke I made with other critics when leaving a screening of Midnight Special goes like this: "General Zod, Spider-man's girlfriend and Marvel's prepubescent 'Dark Reign Cyclops' walk into a bar," but one of my colleagues wryly added, "then Kylo Ren walks in to figure out what they are all doing there."
That would be an overly simplistic yet spoiler-free synopsis of Jeff Nichols' (Mud, Take Shelter) latest film, but perhaps it is really all you need to know before going into this mashup of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and M. Knight Shyamalan's Unbreakable.
Having any more info than that might take away from this ponderous, yet engagingly-subdued thrill ride which serves as an interesting alternative to recent sci-fi offerings which seem to value spectacle over an engaging narrative. That is not to say Midnight Special does not deliver its share of car chases and bloodshed, but what it offers in addition to the big booms and tense moments is a story which does not coddle the audience, either its science or fiction, much less the ramifications which occur as a result.
The premise of the film, if you don't want to go in blind, centers on a father (Michael Shannon) as he takes his young son (Jaeden Lieberher) away from the religious cult which has based their collective faith on the boy's special powers and ominous glowing eyes. The man tries to keep his son safe from both faith-based followers and oppressive government agents who want to better understand and possibly harness the child's special gift. The paterfamilias protagonist enlists the help of a rogue state trooper (Joel Edgerton) and the child's mother (Kirsten Dunst), while a nebbish NSA agent (Adam Driver) tracks their cross-country escape in advance of an impending date which could resolve all the mystery around the possible pint-sized messiah.
The film's performances are all understated, yet never get dark enough to feel rote or out of place. Shannon is almost unrecognizable from the scenery-chewing General Zod he unleashed in Man of Steel and Driver's government bureaucrat is a total about face from the whiny portayl on display in the most recent Star Wars installment.
The special effects in this fantasy serve as much more than just set pieces, though the story never gives any easy explanations for the spectacle unfolding on screen. Those looking for something more along the lines of the upcoming Independence Day and Star Trek sequels to satiate their sci-fi fix may not find Midnight Special the fantasy flavor required to quench their thirst. But those preferring a side of realism added to their supernatural buffet will enjoy the ride. A lack of definite answers is the only qualm to be had with the film, as the cinematic siblings of Close Encounters and Unbreakable each offer some reward at the finish line for those who went on the journey. Midnight Special is the kind of movie which may require those in love with the genre to pay more attention to the story than the spectacle, but it never completes this transaction in a condescending manner. In fact, it may even be the sci-fi movie for people who aren't in love with every sci-fi movie vying for their attention.
Ticket buyers should be warned there is no easy metaphor to be extrapolated or lesson to be learned from Nichols' original screenplay, but they may be satiated by hearing alt-country singer songwriter Ben Nichols (the director's brother) from the band Lucero who provides an earthy tune diverging from the otherwise synth-driven soundtrack as the credits roll.
Midnight Special is not your average sci-fi film, but that is not necessarily a negative comment when compared to what else the story provides for audiences to consider in terms of the greater fantasy film universe.
Jonathan Rich is a freelance journalist, high school educator, and self-professed comic book nerd working in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He writes about entertainment and pop culture for various print and web publications, including bleedingcool.com.