Movie Review: Midnight Special is an Ambitious Sci-Fi Thriller

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Midnight Special (2016)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Liberher, Adam Driver

I was very curious about the positively received sci-fi thriller Midnight Special. It’s the latest from Mud director/writer Jeff Nichols. Mud is the film which not only made it on a lot of top ten movies of the year lists but reminded us that Matthew McConaughey is a serious actor. I was also intrigued as to how Jeff Nichols would explore a science fiction based story while incorporating his his own real-life fears of possibly losing his infant son which is his inspiration for writing Midnight Special.

Let’s talk first about what I liked. One of the things that grabbed me right away is the darker, thriller tone which opens the film. Michael Shannon plays Roy, a father on the run with his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Law enforcement and government agencies are on the hunt for them because Roy supposedly kidnapped his son. On top of that, there’s an intriguing mystery about why a religious cult believes Alton is special and the nature of his unique abilities.

While watching Midnight Special, I noticed how well paced it is. The story consistently pushes forward with significant moments and often adds a new wrinkle to the mystery of Alton. The understated performances are solid, particularly from Shannon because he’s able to convey an emotional depth without overplaying it. Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, who plays a NSA operative, are also really good in supporting roles.

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But to be honest, my overall reaction is lukewarm at best. A big problem for me is that the story as a whole didn’t captured my imagination. The plot itself could have been more original, it actually has similarities to Race to Witch Mountain if you think about it. I also never, not once, became invested in Alton and did not care what happened to him. The heart of Midnight Special should have been the father and son dynamic which could been developed more to set up a stronger emotional pay off. The mystery isn’t all that satisfying or special either and could have used more explanation. The supporting roles, while well acted, are underdeveloped, especially Kirsten Dunst’s underused character.

I wouldn’t completely agree with how Midnight Special has been described by some critics as Spielbergesque. Back when Steven Spielberg was making science fiction blockbusters, those films had a genuine sense of wonder, joy and humor. However, I do appreciate that Midnight Special is striving to be something else. It’s smaller in scope and it’s really a simple story at heart. The science fiction elements do enhance the story than if it was told as a straight up drama. Midnight Special isn’t a mass audience movie that’ll appeal to kids like those early Spielberg classics. This is a mature film for grown ups and may strike a chord with parents of young kids. 

My thoughts on Midnight Special are pretty similar to my reaction to Mud. I can see why many film critics praise it. The themes have a serious dramatic weight to them. The performances across the board are really good and the direction is competent. It’s a film that may be worth checking it out for yourself, but I can’t say that I loved it.

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