Berlin Review: Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols is back with, 'Midnight Special' – a genre-blending family drama-come-sci-fi with heart that is reminiscent of Spielberg’s storytelling prowess and Malick’s visual style.

Director Jeff Nichols presents his fourth feature, Midnight Special, featuring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kristen Dunst and Adam Driver.
 
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a very special child, with a lot of people interested in him, including a religious cult and the NSA. His biological father, Roy (Shannon), along with his childhood pal Lucas (Edgerton) in tow, have taken Alton away and must evade both the authorities and those who have their own interest in the young boy.
 

Joseph Walsh

Following on from 2012’s ‘Mud’, Jeff Nichols returns with the genre-defying and sumptuous looking ‘Midnight Special’, a film that blends road movie with sci-fi, all wrapped in a compelling family drama, bolstered by heart-felt and affecting performances from the lead cast.

There is more than a little of Spielberg’s influence in Nichol’s latest feature, especially the treatment of the film’s central protagonist Alton – a boy who can tune into radios and satellites, as well as eerily emit electric-blue light from his eyes. Alton is a quiet child, cheerily reading old Superman comics in the back of battered car driven by his father (Michael Shannon) and his father’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), decked out with ear defenders and blue swimming goggles giving him an other-worldly, almost amphibian appearance.

It is difficult to reveal much of the plot without spoiling the impact of the narrative, but needless to say, Nichols has cherry-picked from a range of genres paying homage to the tone of ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ (1977), a little ‘Poltergeist’ (1982), and a lot of ‘E.T.’ (1982) especially in the treatment of the non-nuclear family at the centre of the drama.

The influence of Malick, apparent in his previous features ‘Take Shelter’ (2011) and more prominently in ‘Mud’ (2012), is still present. The impact of Malick’s visual style can most clearly be seen in a series of beautiful magic-hour panoramas, full of the early light of dawn, combining a medley of rich reds and warm yellows contrasting against inky black skylines, or embellished with the dirty glow of neon lights adorning gas stations and cheap motels.

Some may criticise the populist appeal, yet there is not a hint of cynicism to the storytelling. Again, as with Nichols’ previous work, at the centre of the story is the bond between a father and son. Shannon is superb as the brooding, hulking father desperate to protect his son, while Dunst gives her all, even with limited screen time, as a mother separated from her child. Edgerton’s Lucas is the character through whom the audience see the story, using him as a filter to understand the dynamic of this unconventional family.

There’s also more than a little of the Twilight Zone about it, including the looming presence of the government, although softened around the edges thanks to Adam Driver’s geeky performance as an NSA spook, which echoes Ben Whishaw’s performance as Bond’s quartermaster in ‘Skyfall’ (2012).

Nichols has crafted a classic Hollywood sci-fi tale, full of tenderness and with a warming family drama at the centre. In doing so he pays homage to Spielberg while avoiding aping the same tropes and managing to remain original.

Overall verdict:

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