We as critics have something of a laundry-list of demands we have for our summer blockbusters/genre entertainments. You know what I’m talking about: “don’t overuse CGI,” “don’t use shaky camera work as a crutch,” “have an original idea rather than basing your movie off of an existing brand,” “cast a seasoned actor/actress instead of a flavor of the week pretty face,” “don’t waste too much time on needless exposition,” “focus on character instead of mindless violence,” etc. It’s to the point where a lot of critics are sick of making the same points over and over again and especially frustrating since audiences stubbornly refuse to turn the movies that make these mistakes into box office flops, thus perpetuating the trends. Believe me, I complain about this stuff as much as anyone but the sheer predictability of these complaints is downright comical at times. It’s to the point where I bet a lot of filmmakers have gotten it into their heads that as long as they avoid all those pitfalls they should be able to make the perfect movie, but all too often it just isn’t that simple. Case-in-point: look at the new Jeff Nichols movie Midnight Special, which seems to be defiantly avoiding every one of the most despised trends of modern entertainment filmmaking and still doesn’t quite emerge as a solid victory unto itself.
Midnight Special opens in medias res with a man named Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run along with a friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). We see that there’s an amber alert out on the kid and that Roy’s face has been circulating on television as the suspect in the boy’s kidnapping, but we get the distinct impression as an audience that the TV isn’t telling the whole story. We soon learn that Alton has some sort of psychic powers that frequently make his eyes glow, allows him to pick up on radio signals, and occasionally causes him to make a psychic connection with people, among other undefined abilities. This has made Alton the subject of great interest among a cult-like church that has mistaken the child for a prophet but he’s also being pursued by Homeland Security for all the usual reason that G-Men hunt down powerful entities in movies like this. Roy, by contrast, just wants to bring Alton to this unspoken destination that he believed he’s destined to arrive at.
Midnight Special is set in modern America but you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance. Everything about the film’s mise en scène seems to point to the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the televisions you see on screen are SD tube televisions, the cars in the film look kind of old, most of the hair styles seem a bit out of date, and none of the main characters seem to own cell phones. It’s almost to the point where it’s jarring when an HD tv shows up about mid-way through the movie. All this may simply reflect the fact that these characters are driving through Texan backwaters but I think it has more to do with the era of cinema that Jeff Nichols is trying to evoke with the movie. The film clearly draws from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its “race to the aliens” plotline and the way the government is trying to investigate common people’s interactions with science fiction entities while not exactly being villainous or heroic. The film also seems to pull from John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman in the way it’s about a small group that’s going on a road trip while being pursued, and I suppose that the fact that a kid is in the middle of all this evokes E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and the somewhat forgotten 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L..
There isn’t really much to complain about from a filmmaking perspective with this movie. Jeff Nichols proved a long time ago that he has a strong grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and his goal here is clearly to move into a more commercial space while maintaining his indie cred. At this he does a pretty admirable job. The film reminded me a little bit of last year’s Ex Machina in that it doesn’t have a ton of special effects but when it does have them they look really good and the film also isn’t filled with a lot of obligatory action scenes for the purposes of selling it to a wider audience. It’s clear that Nichols wanted this to be a science fiction movie that was rooted in ideas rather than spectacle… but that’s kind of the movie’s Achilles heel because I can’t say that I found the science fiction ideas on display in the film to be all that deep or original. The basic setup, father-figure and child with special powers on the run from government MIBs, is hardly an original idea. I mentioned D.A.R.Y.L. and Starman earlier but one could also liken this setup to the Stephen King novel “Firestarter” and its 1984 film adaptation and perhaps even to the recent video game “Beyond: Two Souls.” I’m not sure that this movie really did a whole lot to add to the formula and given the movie’s retro style it can’t even necessarily say that its modernizing the concept for a new audience; it’s just derivative.
So this brings me back to the initial question I started with: “how does a movie that does this much right still fall short.” The movie walks, talks, and acts like a movie I should like but at its core the thing seems empty to me. Whatever is actually interesting about the science fiction here is pretty obscured by mystery and we aren’t really given enough to chew on and I also can’t say that I found any of the characters to be wildly fascinating or the story to be uniquely compelling. It’s a movie that desperately wants to look like it’s substance over style but it isn’t, it’s style over substance, albeit with a different and more adult friendly kind of style. That said, at the end of the day it isn’t a movie I want to come down too hard on. The throwback style will give some nostalgic enjoyment to certain film buffs and it does at least hold together and flow pretty effectively scene to scene. I just wish there was an actual memorable story to go along with the dignified style