Midnight Special (2016)

If I had to sum this movie up, right off the bat, I would have to call it a ‘love letter’ to several of the classic fantasy / sci-fi flicks from the 80’s…one of cinema’s undeniable Golden Ages. As I watched this strangely-paced science-fiction film, I was acutely reminded of the films ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982), ‘Starman’ (1984), ‘The Flight of the Navigator’ (1986), ‘D.A.R.Y.L.’ (1985), and in one key scene…’The Abyss’ (1989). And I think that was the whole point. It’s just a lil too bad that this movie lacked the finesse of THOSE particular films; the ones it lovingly pays homage to and labors to emulate from behind an ‘indie film’ sensibility.
The oddly-named ‘Midnight Special’ opens with a tense introduction to ‘Roy’ (Michael Shannon) and ‘Lucas’ (Joel Edgerton), two desperate and cautious men in a dingy motel room with a young boy named ‘Alton Meyer’ (Jaeden Lieberher). As we see the men stealthily gathering up gear, including guns and body armour, it’s clear that ‘Alton’ is not a normal kid and that these two guys are intent on protecting him from…someone. When ‘Roy’, his father, first approaches ‘Alton’, he’s wearing blue swimming goggles and reading a comic book with the aid of a flashlight, despite the other lights on in the room. As this sequence plays out, we overhear the news broadcast detailing the Amber Alert in effect for ‘Alton’. Soon they’ve piled into their muscle car and taken off into the dusk. After this, we see the FBI raid ‘The Ranch’, a New Age commune of sorts, that was once in possession of the boy, and have shaped their religious belief structure around his random bursts of seemingly nonsensical information. This data has also come to the attention of the NSA, in the form of a nerdy analyst played by ‘Kylo Ren’ himself, Adam Driver. It seems that they believe the boy to be in worrisome possession of transmitted government secrets somehow, and are desperate to find him. Soon the cult and the Feds are in hot pursuit as they chase the fugitives toward a specific, geographic location somewhere in the Southern States. Along the way, ‘Roy’s wife ‘Sarah’ (Kirsten Dunst) joins the small group, and all 4 of them struggle to stay a step ahead of their determined adversaries.
Prior to this flick, I was only passingly familiar with writer / director’s Jeff Nichols’ previous two films, ‘Take Shelter’ (2011) and ‘Mud’ (2012). I liked enough of what I saw in this one to bump those two flicks up the ranks of my ‘Must See’ list. Now that endorsement shouldn’t be taken as a glowing recommendation for THIS flick…as this is a decent movie, just not a great one. It has it’s issues.
Like I said earlier, it’s clear where Nichols got his influence, especially when I consider that the guy is only a year younger than I am (I’m 38), and clearly grew up watching and loving MANY of the same whimsical, exciting, and still-great fantasy / science fiction films of the 1980’s. Films in which a fantastical other-worldly being is helped to get back to his home by sympathetic humans, while being heartlessly pursued by not-so-sympathetic humans. While that description does apply, try to refrain from considering the bloated and pathetic McDonald’s commercial that was 1985’s pathetic ‘Mac and Me’…trust me, it doesn’t count here, despite the fact that it’s a clear ‘E.T’ ripoff and you deserve to forget it if you’ve had the misfortune of having seen it. Getting back on track here, as mentioned previously, ‘Starman’ was clearly part of the blue print for THIS flick. I can say that with confidence, as my girlfriend and I watched the Blu Ray version of that great John Carpenter movie just last weekend and the comparison is incredibly obvious. Hell, one of the military officers pursuing ‘Alton’ was named ‘Carpenter’! THAT can NOT have been a coincidence! There’s also some definite ‘Carpenter’ in the Film Score too, with it frequently taking on a retro 80’s synthesizer flavor for many sequences.
Before I itemize that which didn’t quite work for me…I’ll mention that which did. The acting and the cast were solid, despite how one-dimensional they turned out to be when you really broke it down. Michael Shannon (‘Boardwalk Empire’) was good (he’s worked with this director several times before), turning his usual ‘funeral director’-type persona into something a little sad and little desperate (in a good way). Joel Edgerton (‘The Thing 2011’) was clearly committed to fleshing out his State Trooper-turned-fugitive, despite the lack of background. He was good at being the capable and resourceful ‘operator’ of the group, and a couple times was the first to bravely leap into the fray. At first, I didn’t even recognize Kirsten Dunst (‘The Virgin Suicides’), but she brought a nice maternal determination to her character…and was still a nice treat for the eyes, in my humble opinion. Up until 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’, I was unfamiliar with Adam Driver as an actor and as a result, I have ‘Ben Solo’ stuck in my head, where he’s concerned, so it was interesting to see him come in and basically take on the same type of sympathetic ‘turn coat’ government agent who comes to side with the protagonist’s, like Charles Martin Smith’s ‘Shermin’ in ‘Starman’, or Peter Coyote’s ‘Keys’ character in ‘E.T.’. He did a good job with what he had.
While there weren’t as many as there could’ve been, there were some decent actions scenes, including the crashing of a military satellite into a gas station (you read that correctly), and a high-speed car chase that actually resulted in believable damage to the vehicles involved. One ‘car’ scene featured a cool ‘getaway’ through the use of a ‘black-out’ switch and night-vision goggles…and I found it genuinely exciting. There’s also a couple tense sequences involving some realistic gun-play. The science fiction elements, while a little murky in purpose or practice, were also cool and helped lend a little sense of ‘wonder’ to the narrative.
However, mentioning the narrative, it can’t be denied that some tightening certainly could’ve helped, along with some more concise answers about aspects of the overall situation. I like it when a movie leaves some of the answers up to my own imagination but here, some more explanation for what was going on would’ve gone a long way to making this flick more accessible to average movie goers. I found the pacing of the story somewhat clunky, with the ‘flow’ being abruptly interrupted a few times by ‘exposition’ scenes that stopped everything dead in its tracks. It also didn’t feel like it adhered to the traditional 3 Act Structure, which for a story like this is a definite benefit. Not every movie NEEDS to subscribe to this, but the well-established type of story that this is, works best under those controlled, literary circumstances…again in my humble opinion. On a technical level, I did feel that the ‘popcorn movie’ concept was a little undersold by the clear ‘indie’ aesthetic that was used as a ‘toolbox’. Lots of still, oddly-focused compositions used for Establishment Shots and flat scenes with little to no sound punctuated the story. Also, several scenes were simply too damn dark and really could’ve used some more controlled illumination. As much as I appreciate directors who try to embrace the use of Natural Lighting, sometimes…it’s just not enough. As was the case here.
All in all, given that I just decided to go to a movie this morning on a whim. and had only so much to choose from, ‘Midnight Special’ was an interesting and mostly entertaining choice. Does it need to be seen on The Big Screen? Not at all. I don’t regret seeing it in the theatre (it was me and one other geek parked in the seats today), but I recognize that this is probably better suited for a Home Release format, like Blu Ray or streaming. If you’re a fan of flicks from the 80’s, especially the ones I listed at the beginning of this review, then you’ll probably get ‘something’ out of this. For everyone else, if you happen to stumble upon this one, on a lazy day with nothing to do, there are worse ways you could blow an hour and 52 minutes of your life.

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