Finally Jeff Nichols (Mud, 2012; Take Shelter, 2011) finished and launched his first feature produced by a big studio. Of course there is a lingering fear that Warner Bros could kill off his creativity, particularly because this is a sci-fi movie, and sci-fi flicks are often highly prescriptive and formulaic. But Nichols maintains full control as an auteur. Two of his regulars – Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard – are on board. In addition, he has used cinematographer Adam Stone for years, while Ben Nichols had already signed the soundtracks of Mud and Take Shelter. Working with people he knew ensured Nichols remained in his comfort zone, even when money talks.
Midnight Special is about a palpable emotion that is transferred to the audience. In essence it is about facing up to the fact that your children will eventually leave you, regardless of your plans. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a kid in search of his own identity. He knows that he is different from other kids, but he is quite unsure where he belongs. He is often sick, he cannot bear sunlight, he can tune in with radio statics and reproduce the announcer’s speech. Most importantly, he knows dark secrets about the US government.
The opening shot was on Nichols’ mind since the making of Take Shelter. In just a couple of sequences, the directors raises a number of questions which keep audiences hooked until the end of the film. What is going on is a mystery. Why do they wake up in the middle of the night to travel? Is it a kidnapping? If so, why is the kid so kind to his kidnapper? Where are they going to? Why are the FBI and an unnamed church chasing him?
The plot mixes mysticism, copper action and science-fiction with a gentle dose of sensibility. Nichols always finds a way to reach both the heart and the eyes.
What Midnight Special special is that light drives the narrative. It is on the boy’s eyes, it is on the car headlights, it is on the new alien landscapes on Earth. The visual effects are not intrusive. They are an integral part of the story. In many Hollywood sci-fi movies, the Earth is devastated, the end is nigh, and there is plenty of high-tech machinery. Nichols does not raise those issues. He instead centers on the father and son relationship.
Nichols says: “I hate unmotivated camera moves. Every time you move the camera you change the point of view”. These changes here are subtle and delicate. Nichols confesses he watched a Spanish short movie called The 3rd and the 7th (Alex Roman, 2014), which inspired the visual effects in his movie. Both films aim to reproduce the pace of growth in nature.
Midnight Special has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) and Close Encounters of Third Kind (1977). In reality, Nichols’ unconventional elements make his film far more powerful and effective.