Here's a list of just some of the wonderfully strange, evocative images offered up in the first half of Jeff Nichols' sci-fi thriller Midnight Special:
- A man standing in a motel room in which the windows have been blacked out with cardboard peels tape off the peephole in order to peer outside.
- A boy wearing goggles and safety headphones uses a flashlight to read a comic book under a sheet.
- A congregation in conservative dresses and work clothes recites a list of numbers in unison during a sermon in a florescent-lit room with no windows.
- A driver puts on night-vision goggles to drive without headlights on a road in the dark, all the better to remain undetected.
- A man crouches over a child at night, the two linked by a beam of light emanating from the child's glowing eyes.
If there was an award for the movie whose still images were most likely to be used as inspirational jumping-off points in a creative writing exercise, Nichols' mildly disappointing latest would win it, easily.
Midnight Special is a film that sweats and strives to evoke the wonder of vintage Spielberg without the sentimental side. When its mundane settings — the road-worn cars and humble houses in which so much of the film takes place — rumble with the activation of otherworldly forces, it feels like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), the boy everyone is after, is pursued by government agents, it recalls E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, with the kid serving as a mixture of Elliott and E.T. And it's at least as solid a tribute to Steven Spielberg as J.J. Abrams' uneven simulacrum Super 8, which reached for the same childlike combination of awe and uncertainty and had the advantage of the participation of Spielberg himself as a producer.
But Midnight Special is better matched up with another recent release, 10 Cloverfield Lane — they're both movies that suggest a larger warped universe while practicing economy of scale and relying on directorial deftness over effects. These are movies that are both made on the relative cheap — 10 Cloverfield Lane for $15 million, Midnight Special for $18 — and that are more ambitious in world-building than in what they actually show. Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special gets a lot less intriguing when it reveals what's really going on, though for the former, that's a forgivable issue related only to the final act. Midnight Special, on the other hand, reveals all sorts of marvelous, enigmatic imagery, only for all the eerie resonance of those early scenes to snap together into a story that's curiously unengaging for one about a kid with powers and his dad out on the run from fanatics and the NSA.
Midnight Special is the fourth film from Nichols, a director whose career contrasts the grand with the workaday. Family feud drama Shotgun Stories led to the tremendous Take Shelter, in which a family man's anxiety expressed itself in apocalyptic dreams, and then on to Mud, in which two kids stumble across a drifter who promises adventure but who's actually fleeing more prosaic problems. Like his past films, Midnight Special stars Nichols' trusty muse Michael Shannon as Roy, a man who fled the cult in which he and his ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) used to live, only to return to take back his son, Alton. Shannon, alternating between tender and desperate, is mostly paired with Joel Edgerton, who plays Lucas, the childhood friend he's recruited for help.
It's the sort of cast that can do a lot with very little, and Midnight Special throws the audience into the story when Roy is already on the run, Alton sick and also capable of inexplicable things. There's a sympathetic NSA analyst, played by Adam Driver, on the side of the men in black, while the cult, "the ranch," is under the leadership of Sam Shepard. In limited screen time, they all turn their characters into figures who feel like they have full lives stretching out behind them, even if they're not the sort you feel all that inclined to be invested in emotionally.
For a movie that doesn't exactly fess up in its ending, it might seem like a strange complaint to say that there's not enough mystery in Midnight Special, but that's its problem — its broad motivations are all put in the open. It's not a metaphor for anything. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a paranoid drama embedded in the promise of a sci-fi premise. Midnight Special is a chase movie in which everything and everyone is as they seem, even if what they are is possessed with inexplicable capabilities. It summons a shrug more than it does astonishment, but at least it looks good on the way.