Director Jeff Nichols has already made in imprint on cinema with his intimate stories about family, trials, and relationships – the last one being 2012’s Mud. Nichols is back to dazzle audiences with his new sci-fi drama Midnight Special.
On the surface, Midnight Special is sci-fi story about a man, Roy (Michael Shannon), who kidnaps his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and insist on taking him to a location on a specific date and time. Alton displays powers that some would deem alien or supernatural. The cult Alton was stolen from believes he’s a savior with supernatural abilities, and the dates Alton mutters point to a massive religious event. Meanwhile, the FBI believes Alton is a weapon and they want to capture him to figure out who or what he is.
Through Nichols’ lens, Midnight Special is a lot more than a sci-fi movie. It’s a story about paternal love. Its story about family, faith, and what we do to protect the ones we love. Its a story about loyalty and letting go.
Much like Nicholas’ previous films, he trusts the audience to understand the story he’s telling. A lesser movie would spend time explaining exactly what’s going on with Alton and his powers. That’s not the story. The story is how this 8 year old boy in swim goggles impacts everyone around him. To his parents, he’s a child. To the church, he’s a divine being who’s signaling something greater. To the FBI, he’s a weapon. The beauty of the story is that neither group is wrong. Alton is all those things at the same time.
Michael Shannon continues his streak of incredible performances. He delivers in another intense role that requires him to bug his eyes and scrunch his face as only Michael Shannon can do. It’s not the intense scenes that he uses the nail this role, it’s the intimate ones. Most notably is a scene where Alton tells Roy he doesn’t have to worry about him and Roy replies, “I like worrying about you.
Even thought the story is focused on family, that plot isn’t a bore. It starts a little slow but once it gets going, there are some very intense scenes, an awesome sequence at a gas station, and a shootout. There’s even a few funny moments courtesy of an NSA agent played by Adam Driver.
A big part of what makes this movie great is the mystery that surrounds the story. What is Alton’s power(s)? What happened at the church compound? Why did Roy leave? What does the FBI know? What do people see when they look into Alton’s eyes?
In a pop culture climate that includes popular TV shows like Black Mirror and Doctor Who and movies like Interstellar, Midnight Special fits in perfectly as tender tale of family and love cloaked in a sci-fi blanket. Sweeping sci-fi dramas with limited characters and conventional story lines will never go away. Filmmakers like Nichols provide hope that people can tell these stories and humanize the characters without sacrificing any of the complexities or nuances that make sci-fi interesting.