Midnight Special feels like “real science-fiction.” This may seem like a contradiction in terms but the way that writer and director Jeff Nichols presents his science-fiction story is completely in the realms of realism and fact. Throughout the film the aspect of science-fiction is played down. It isn’t an unrelenting, fantastical filled movie, akin to Tomorrowland or Super 8.
In fact, if you took the “super-powers” (for lack of a better term) away from the child, then the movie would still work, as at it’s core it is a story about a dad trying to save his son. The two are being pursued by a religious cult and the Government, which means that the movie is a chase story, but one with plenty of surprise and plot developments throughout.
The story is aided by the intriguing way the tale is told. Facts and key-points of the story, and the characters involved, are drip-fed rather than laden on with thick exposition. At times it feels more like a mystery being played out, as Adam Driver’s NSA agent tries to hunt down the father and son, while trying to figure out the secret behind the boy. It is this that keeps your interest as the audience is given very little of the facts either.
This means that we rely on Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton for our glimpse into the secrets the boy possesses. Their relationship is unexplained for a lot of the running time, another mystery to solve, and what we get is a very restraint performance from Shannon. He isn’t the brooding, intense individual you may associate with the actor, nor is this performance one of high-drama and loud dialogue, like Man of Steel. Shannon plays a role unfamiliar in his career, one of a confused, desperate and at times helpless father.
The movie also gives us a very different side to Kirsten Dunst too. The star made famous, and maybe also tarnished, by the Sam Raimi Spiderman movies, gives a very understated performance here. She is stripped of any make-up and made to look tired or even aged slightly. It is a departure from the role you’d expect from Dunst and maybe a different direction for her career.
The stand-out star of the movie is the principle character of the boy. Alton Meyer is played by Jaeden Lieberher. Lieberher has already shown good acting promise is St. Vincent but here he steps it up a notch. Lots more is required of the actor and he rises to the challenge, being able to hold a scene as the authoritative figure when played against already established actors like Driver, Shannon and Edgerton.
He also conveys the sci-fi aspect of the movie well too. Unfortunately, and rather bizarrely considering the plot and context of the movie, the sci-fi is the weakest aspect. Used sparingly and as a hook to both the audience and pursuing parties in the story, it is a good device. It also offers the mystery the movie relies on for audience’s interest. As more is revealed though, the mystery falls away and the movie loses the edge and creative difference it had.
This is felt the most in the finale of the movie. It isn’t overdone or laid-on too thick but some of the mystery is removed and the science-fiction element seems to undo some of the good work achieved by keeping the story much more rooted in “realism.”
Overall, Midnight Special uses the science-fiction element of the plot sparingly and consequently to good effect. It is a movie which utilises the strength of the performances, primarily from on-screen father and son Shannon and Lieberher. Unfortunately, the more sci-fi is added, the less impactful and effective the movie seems to be.
Rating – 4
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