There’s some very good storytelling advice that applies no matter what medium you’re telling your story in (film, novel, comic book, whatever): Jump into the action as late in the game as possible. And wow, did Jeff Nichols take that advice to a delicious extreme with Midnight Special. We are dumped right into the middle of what would be, in a more conventional movie, the third act — that is, the final sequence that is racing the story toward its resolution. There is no setup here because we don’t need it: we’ve seen enough stories like this one to guess at the rough outline, and Nichols — writer and director — has no interest in covering already well-trod ground or wasting time with details that are superfluous.
This isn’t a movie about plot, and if it were, we’d correctly call it trite and worn out. Instead, this is a story about the emotion that too often gets ignored in the science-fiction thrillers Midnight Special is adjacent to… and it’s the emotion not only of the characters on the screen but of us watching as well. Take a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Starman (the latter of which Nichols has said was a big inspiration here), slow down its final act, and put its primary players under an emotional microscope: that’s what Midnight Special is doing. (And not that Close Encounters and Starman aren’t already full of deep feeling, but this same basic premise would work with any cheap knockoff genre thriller, too.) The result is intensely gripping drama — full of smart, thoughtful, personal twists on some familiar science-fiction ideas — about the driving forces of paranoia and self-preservation, but also about the power of love and hope.
Somewhere in rural Texas, Roy (the absolutely riveting Michael Shannon: The Night Before, Freeheld) is on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher: Aloha), with the help of a state trooper, Lucas (Joel Edgerton: Black Mass, The Gift), whom we can presume has abandoned his police duties. All is dark roads at night with the headlights off and hiding out in crappy motels. At first, we don’t know what they’re running from, but their terror and urgency is palpable. Well, Roy and Lucas are afraid; Alton seems pretty relaxed, though he’s also clearly not physically well: he’s weak and has a strange aversion to sunlight. Soon we learn that they are being chased by representatives of the religious cult — led by Calvin (Sam Shepard: Cold in July, Out of the Furnace) — that had sprung up around the mysterious powers that Alton seems to genuinely possess, and from whose hands, it seems, Roy had snatched the kid. They believe that Alton had been prophesying something big about to happen, and they want the kid back, so that he can continue to channel God for them, perhaps — or maybe they believe they are protecting Alton from… something.
But now there are also government agents on the hunt! NSA operative Sevier (Adam Driver: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, While We’re Young) seems much less sinister than Calvin — he’s very François Truffaut in Close Encounters — but he still wants to find Alton and ask him just how he is able to do some very particular things that has U.S. national security very worried.
How did Alton end up with the cult? What does the NSA think is the source of Alton’s powers? Who is Lucas, and how did he get involved with Alton and Roy? What is the story with Roy and Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst: The Two Faces of January, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), whom they pick up along the way; it seems like they’re not together anymore, and is that because of something to do with Alton? There is a lot of ambiguity here, and at the very end of the film, some of a supremely tantalizing variety. (My sole quibble with the movie is one matter of deliberate vagueness that goes a step too far. Roy and Sarah, as Alton’s parents, should have a few more answers about the mystery of their son, or a lot more questions about him that should terrify the hell out of them. They don’t appear to have either, and this is a problem, particularly since the movie is so much about how they feel about their son, though it’s a small one.)
That ambiguity is where our feelings about the genre come into play, and get played upon in the most satisfying way. Midnight Special beautifully captures, subtly but profoundly, the nonreligious spirituality of science fiction, that optimism that craves hints of something more than just this small world of ours, but a something more that does not require the supernatural. We don’t want fantasy, we just want a bigger and better reality. With Calvin’s cult and Sevier’s NSA, we have extremes of religion (we are powerless in the face of God!) and extremes of rationality (we can control everything!) and we are, like Roy and Alton, right in the middle of it. Much in the same way that Nichols’s astonishing 2011 film Take Shelter (also with Shannon) was imbued with a sense of dread that something awful was looming just over the horizon and was about to strike, Midnight Special hums with the hope that a better world is within our reach. It’s a feeling that has been missing from science fiction on the screen for a long time, and is very welcome back.