REVIEW: Jeff Nichols' Excellent MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Offers A Minimalist Take On Sci-Fi & Superheroes

REVIEW: Jeff Nichols' Excellent MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Offers A Minimalist Take On Sci-Fi & Superheroes

Jeff Nichols' enigmatic sci-fi/indie Midnight Special finally expanded in both domestic & international theatres this weekend. Does it live up to expectations? Hit the jump to read my take!


After Batman v Superman kicked off the blockbuster season two weeks ago, you could be forgiven for letting a smaller movie like Midnight Special slip under your radar. It was made on less than 1/13th of BvS‘s reported budget, and boasts a considerably weaker marketing campaign as well. So weak, in fact, that it’s been out for almost a month in the US and has only made $2.3M in box office receipts so far.
 
The reason for this is that, until this weekend, Warner Bros had released the film in a grand total of 58 theatres nationwide. While it’s not uncommon for indie movies to have limited releases and slowly expand (building word-of-mouth as they do so), given this film’s cast, genre appeal, and $18M budget, it seemed odd to me the studio didn’t attempt to shop it to a few more moviegoers.
 
At its core, Midnight Special is a superhero film. Far removed from the likes of Deadpool and BvS - but a superhero film nonetheless. It centers on a boy named Alton, who possesses otherworldly powers. In order to protect the child, his father takes him on the run with an accomplice, and they soon find themselves hunted by both the federal government and a religious cult obsessed with his abilities.

 
Having now seen the movie, Warner Bros’s lack of financial faith in it
 makes a little more sense. That’s not to say it’s a bad film (it’s really not), but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Jeff Nichols’ poignant drama/mystery lacks the mass-appeal that the CBMs & sci-fi flicks covered on this site regularly exhibit. The action sequences are few and far between and the story is deliberately enigmatic. Plot revelations come slowly and naturally, rather than through the swift mercy of verbal exposition.
 
It’s still a thrilling ride, provided you’re willing to give it a chance - the immensely gripping opening sequence alone is proof of that. But for the most part, Nichols chooses to layer his movie in tension and intrigue, building towards an eventual payoff in a manner that’s almost painstaking. Ultimately, the payoff may even be seen as underwhelming by some, but (like many a great road-trip movie) it’s the journey and the characters themselves that stick with you afterwards.


 
Michael Shannon is fantastic as the boy’s biological father, Roy. The bond he shares with Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton represents the film’s beating heart, grounding its tale of mystery and wonder with themes of family and belief. Iron-willed, headstrong and passionate - it’s the kind of high-caliber performance we’ve all come to expect from the former Man Of Steel actor.
 
Lieberher handles the spotlight well, adding a virtuous and alien innocence to Alton that’s almost befitting of a young Clark Kent. In a genre full of average-to-bad child acting, Nichols’ ability to get the best out of his young star should not go unnoticed. Elsewhere, Kirsten Dunst is quietly impressive as the boy’s mother, complementing Shannon with an equally resolute yet subtly more compassionate parental portrayal. Together, the three stars create a loving family you can’t help but root for.
 
However, the standout might just be Joel Edgerton, who plays Roy’s old friend and accomplice, Lucas. A true supporting talent, Edgerton unselfishly plays second fiddle to his family of co-stars, elevating any scene he’s in with a mix of heart & subtle wit. Star Wars' Adam Driver rounds out a talented ensemble with a measured and nuanced turn as an NSA analyst charged with tracking down the missing child.


 
This was actually my first cinematic exposure to Jeff Nichols, but from what I’ve heard, the man has been exhibiting this kind of talent for almost a decade. With hits such as Mud and Take Shelter under his belt, he’s already being labeled an ‘auteur’ after just four films – and with good reason too. It’s a huge shame he and DC couldn’t settle on a creative direction for his Aquaman movie.
 
Above all else, this is an incredibly well-made movie. Nichols blends the spectacle of Spielbergian sci-fi with the more meditative aspects of the superhero genre - and yet opts to convey it through a minimalist lens. Blessed with some breathtaking cinematography and an atmospheric score, Midnight Special is a genre-defying family drama that should evoke as much emotion as it does awe.


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