Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era. It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new. It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be. Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work. However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be. Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.
Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse. With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.
There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.” Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes. In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings. By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.
Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going. “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works. To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here. The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair. It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.
It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances. Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave. As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work. As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace. The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film. His screen time is all too brief.
“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés. In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas. It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.