Now, this is some refreshing sci-fi! Midnight Special starts in mid-stride, with two men hustling a cooperative young boy into the back of a ’72 Chevelle as an AMBER alert describing the trio blares in the background. The driver of the car then puts on a pair of night vision goggles, switches off the headlights, and tears off into pre-dawn darkness. It’s a badass opening sequence — and it all takes place before the title screen — but, thankfully, the movie doesn’t proceed on some mindless chase, full of gunfights, explosions, and unlikely scenarios. (That kind of faux sci-fi has been done to death.) Midnight Special instead takes the high road, adopting a deliberate, albeit slow, pace that eventually yields a unique, character-driven sci-fi/drama rather than another trope-filled sci-fi/action flick.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, relies once again on Michael Shannon — one of the most interesting and expressive actors in Hollywood — as well as the American Deep South to tell a moving and meditative story. Taking cues from the sci-fi blockbusters of the 1980’s (Close Encounters, E.T., Starman, Cocoon), Midnight Special weaves together government agents, religious cult members, and a boy with seemingly “alien” abilities into an extremely suitable, though particularly subtle, tapestry. The script doesn’t spend much time explaining itself, and the dialogue doesn’t spoon-feed the audience any plot points. Viewers are forced to pay close attention if they want to put the whole story together, piece-by-piece. (And, as you surely know by now, I generally find that kind of “work” refreshing.)
Midnight Special is worth the slow ride because it ultimately pays off with an unforgettable conclusion, unlike any I can remember from the past two decades of cinema. With this film, Nichols’ certainly solidifies his status as one of the most fascinating (and uniquely American) writer/directors working today. (Actually, I tend to believe that he’s poised to excel in every way that his predecessors — directors like Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green — have failed. [Holler at me in the comments section if you need me to explain that rather brazen comment.])
Nichols is like that rare, good friend, who actually has very thought-provoking things to say, but never talks too much — and I’m really psyched to see what he does next.
Four pot leafs out of five: