Midnight Special is a sci-fi movie for those moviegoers who wouldn’t dream of going to see a sci-fi movie. It avoids many plot points that the genre might bring: no space wars, no dark against light, no dogfights, no exploding planets, no time travel. There isn’t even a spaceship in sight. It trusts its characters enough to drive the story forward and keeps a moderate pace so that we have a chance to think about how those three characters, two men and a boy, repeatedly find themselves in a boarded-up motel room.
The boy’s name is Alton Meyer, and pretty much all of the characters in Midnight Special agree that he is different than everyone else. That is the movie’s open secret: Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher) is human, but he is also something else. He has a father, Ray Tomlin (Michael Shannon), and a mother, Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst). There is Ray’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton has been adopted by a cult leader called Brother Calvin (Sam Shepard); the cult is called by its location, the Ranch. Brother Calvin does not read the Bible to his congregation, but rather Alton’s visions. And his visions contain police radio and satellite transmissions, which make for strange sermons. Ray and Sarah were members of the Ranch, and whereas Sarah couldn’t deal with the adoption and quit the Ranch, Ray had to stay on and watch his son be raised by another man.
Ray, Sarah and Lucas try to keep Alton safe because in four days’ time, in a place they have figured out with the help of Alton’s visions, something will happen. Alton claims that he will go home, whatever that might mean. The Ranch only knows the date, and so Brother Calvin sends out his henchmen to get Alton back and get him to reveal the place, and to take him there in time. To the Ranch, Alton is the key to Armageddon, which is good news to the cult because they believe that they will be saved.
The police are after Alton and Ray because the Ranch has raised an Amber Alert for child abduction. And as soon as it transpires that Brother Calvin’s sermons contain codes from national security that an 8-year-old boy has babbled to him in a strange spell, the NSA steps up and takes over from the FBI. And finally, the Army would like to turn Alton into a weapon. There are five or six parties after Alton, for entirely different reasons. The movie could easily have turned into a hectic cat-and-mouse chase, but while there are chase sequences, it doesn’t overdo the action. Midnight Special is tinged in a kind of sci-fi drama that avoids being soppy or Spielberg-y. There is one breathtaking scene where Alton brings down an Air Force satellite because he knows they are looking for him, and he cannot afford to be caught because he needs to go home.
Ah, the spells. Sometimes Alton’s eyes emanate an intense blue light. People have seen wonderous things in that light, so the boy wears blue-tinted swimming goggles. The spells come and go and are messages from the home Alton needs and wants to go to. To humans, they are scary as hell because Alton and his parents travel by night. He speaks in languages he hasn’t learned. For some of the characters in the movie, that’s scary, but there is one man, Paul Sevier from the NSA, played by Adam Driver, who instinctively knows that Alton is very determined, and highly gifted, but not dangerous. Driver’s performance is pitch-perfect. In a movie with a lot of smart people, he is the smartest, and it would be unwise to go against Alton. How he deals with Alton is something to see.
A short excursion: The director of Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols, has made four movies so far, and all of them feature Michael Shannon. The closest to Midnight Special is probably Take Shelter, a movie with even less sci-fi elements. Shannon also plays a dad who sometimes carries his kids to safety, like here. In Take Shelter, however, the threat might be only in his mind. There is a storm gathering that nobody else seems to see, and Michael Shannon is perfect for the role of a man who doesn’t know if he is losing his mind or not. Both movies are very watchable. Excursion over.
Usually, I prefer movies where the characters are smarter than me as opposed to movies with stupid characters. Ray and Sarah have good sense to let their son go, but that doesn’t mean they are not heartbroken. Lucas is a quick thinker, loyal and reliable, but prefers to not talk about that too much. And even Brother Calvin really believes in his calling as a cult leader. The Amber Alert is not a decoy to make the police bring Alton back to him – the child is his adopted son, and Ray really has abducted Alton. On the other hand, there is no information that is kept from the audience so that the movie can pull the rug from under their feet. In a movie as good as this, that would be cheating. There is no single malicious lie in the whole movie; all the characters in it act according to their beliefs. You can dislike sci-fi all you want, but Midnight Special doesn’t cheat because it is more firmly rooted in this world than in any other.