Midnight Special

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi Director: Nichols

In a cinematic year where comicbook superheroes will spend a great deal of time pummeling each other in epic, CGI-laden explosionfests, I believe in Alton Meyer. I’m sure I’m not the only one. A lot of people believe in Alton in Jeff Nichols’ new film, Midnight Special, a sci-fi drama in the vein of classic Steven Spielberg blockbusters like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Alton’s father, Roy (regular Nichols collaborator, Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on a journey with the boy to a particular set of coordinates on a specific day. Beyond this, I actually would prefer to not delve into the narrative details. Midnight Special thrives on the mystery of the story unfolding before you, and from the opening scenes, it had my full attention. So, should you choose to see the film, know that you’re in very capable hands with director Jeff Nichols and the excellent performances from the entire cast.

Nichols channels Spielberg quite strongly here, almost to the point of parody, but Midnight Special is not so much a facsimile as it is an analogy. It’s within the same family of Spielberg’s films, but Nichols’ script and direction add some original elements which keep the film’s story both gripping and from going off the rails. There are also parallels to Alex Proyas’ Knowing and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, in that a young person is somehow viewed as…well…special in their capacity to be the bridge between worlds. I think Midnight Special is far more optimistic than Knowing and more realistic than Tomorrowland, striking a balance between fantasy and realism, between cynicism and cheerfulness. I also appreciate Nichols’ storytelling capabilities, allowing the audience to be immersed within the narrative without always having to spell out the details. He cuts scenes before an act of violence takes place, inviting our imaginations to fill in the blanks and ponder what happens. The film also leaves us with enough mystery to keep us guessing as to its meaning long after the film is over, which fosters discussion and rumination.

Midnight Special explores the nature of belief, and how one’s faith and experience often go hand in hand. Folks may say “I won’t believe it until I see it,” but like the disciple Thomas, when they are confronted with something–or Someone–they cannot explain through their previous paradigm, they find themselves thrust from skepticism into the risky realm of faith. Various characters throughout the film must interpret Alton’s persona and the events surrounding him through their own lens. One character remarks to Alton that some view him as a threat, while others see him as savior. He responds that he’s neither, though the savior figure is certainly an apt description. He’s a figure who shows people the truth about reality, the “light of the world” as he opens people’s eyes to new visions of themselves and the world around. The image of Alton reading comicbooks may want us to draw parallels to superhero stories, but the religious imagery simply can’t be denied. The film almost slips into the allegorical, and I imagine Christian audiences will be able to see strong parallels between their own theological understandings and the film’s ideas. Whether or not this is Nichols’ intent is unclear, suffice to say that he’s willing to explore ideas of faith and belief in the context of intriguing and original stories. In Nichols’ filmography (Shotgun Stories, Mud), the closest parallel to Midnight Special is Take Shelter, another Michael Shannon-led film which is akin to a modern-day Noah story (read my review of Take Shelter here). Both make bridges between the realm of concrete realism and the fantastical; both can be viewed as spiritual allegories for our questions about faith, hope, and love. While I’m convinced that Take Shelter is the stronger story, Midnight Special is a solid entry into Nichols’ pantheon of excellent Southern gothic cinema.

I believe in Alton Meyer. I also believe in Jeff Nichols. IMDB says that his next film, Loving, will be released later this year. I can’t wait to see what story he’ll tell next.

IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2649554/

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