A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!
Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Written By: Jeff Nichols
Produced By: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver
Running Time: 111 Minutes
It was only a matter of time before Jeff Nichols was approached to direct a superhero film. Refraining from becoming a puppet under the watchful eye of Marvel studios and persisting with his independent approach, his latest feature Midnight Special appears to be a blockbuster in disguise; a superhero film without the colossal mayhem, an origin story or a central opposing antagonist.
This is a film with a sizeable thematic undertaking that blends political and societal anxieties, comic book law and religious scripture, all of which combine to make Midnight Special a fascinating concept, on paper at least.
The end product is something that taps into each of the aforementioned themes, but doesn’t explore them very well in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, Nichols’ latest feels like the lovechild of E.T. and Tomorrowland, however it’s clear that wasn’t necessarily the intention.
With some Nichols alumni such as Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard returning, Midnight Special boasts an incredible cast with the likes of Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton also on board with subdued and modest performances. From its earliest stages, the film has the ability to hook you in completely and fix your interest thereafter for a substantial period of time.
The audience is introduced to the story half way through a journey. There isn’t much breathing room to allow for in-depth character development and exposition; it unravels itself in a deliberately ambiguous manner.
For a fair portion of the narrative, ambiguity is king; it’s a popular tactic utilised in countless science fiction stories, however the feeling with Midnight Special is that it uses it unjustly. Science fiction storylines are often a two-way street of ambiguity and exposition. Achieving the balance is imperative, so when one is favoured over the other, audience scepticism is bound to seep in.
Roy (Michael Shannon), alongside Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run from various parties including the FBI and a religious cult, all of whom are pursuing young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who possesses an unspecified set of powers. Some see him as a weapon that could be harnessed for the protection of the country whilst others see him as their lord and saviour. What is most important however is that Roy sees Alton as a child that must be protected at all costs.
Conceptually, Midnight Special is one of the more fascinating synopses to emerge this year, yet one cannot help that Nichols has bitten off more than he could chew. Juggling a vast array of characters with differing subplots that represent a different thematic facet of the story overall, the execution is admirable, but lacking all the same.
Acting as the MacGuffin of the piece and bringing an intriguing aspect of innocence and delicacy to the rough and grizzly world he inhabits, Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton is an curious creation. Barely speaking for the majority of the film (in English at least), his exact circumstances are unknown, however even though that may be the point, some clarity is required to be emotionally drawn to him (in reference to the sci-fi two way street).
The relationship between Alton and Roy is rich and crushing. One based on protection, desire and nurturing, the motivations of the characters may be unclear in terms of precise destination and intentions, however you believe in them on a human level nonetheless.
Lastly, it may be completely unrelated, but seeing Alton (a Clarke Kent-like figure in many regards) converse with General Zod about kryptonite was a nice touch that is sure to trigger with most audiences.
The imagination, the fantasticality and the magnitude of the film’s metaphorical aspects are all qualities Nichols has bravely demonstrated and explored. Furthermore, within the concentrated narrative, the film possesses the face on an indie with the heart of an epic.
The characters are grounded, realistic and contrasting in their own way, while the focus on youthful innocence adds another dimension to the already multilayered story. For all its bravery and boldness, Midnight Special is unfortunately unable to fully explore any of its themes in depth, resulting in a scattered series of plot threads that don’t intertwine as much as one would hope.
Leaving the film with a lot to discuss and contemplate, it’s difficult not to ultimately ponder on what could have been. There was potential for greatness in Nichols’ fourth feature, whilst there was also a lot to admire, even love. However when realising it isn’t the love letter to sci-fi classics of decades past we were hoping for, one is left breathing a tender sigh of disappointment as discussion and deep thought ensues.