The glaring lights of other cars assault the driver’s eyes,
A father’s eyes that have not slept a wink.
His son is sleeping in the back or reasonably tries,
As far behind, the passing headlights shrink.
Their own light slices through the dark to blindly find the road,
Its end concealed by more than just the night.
Throughout their drive, the father’s pace has hardly ever slowed,
Lest thoughts of past or future cloud his sight.
The worries of a father’s love cannot be put to rest,
No matter where the son may chance to go.
Not even when they reach the destination of their quest
Will bonds of son and father cease to glow.
MPAA rating: PG-13
I haven’t seen any other films from director Jeff Nichols, but based on his reputation and the high expectations for his foray into science fiction, I anticipated something special, especially since Midnight Special was meant as a homage to classic ‘80s sci-fi. In fact, it has more than a passing resemblance to one of my favorite ‘80s sci-fi films, John Carpenter’s Starman, sharing a road trip to an important destination, a hunted protagonist with mysterious powers, and government agents hot on his trail.
In place of the romantic angle of Starman is a devoted father-son dynamic between Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who has strange seizures during which his eyes glow and he picks up radio signals. There’s little set-up as we immediately join Roy’s odyssey, having already rescued Alton, with the help of his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), from a Texas cult that views the boy as a messianic savior. Alarmed to learn that the cult learned sensitive information through Alton, the government is eager to find him, as are the enforcers sent by the cult to retrieve him.
As much as I was looking forward to Midnight Special, this is one case where the description sounds better than the finished product. It’s certainly not a bad film, but much of the runtime seemed to hover on the edge of being dull. After the initial curiosity of what’s going on wears off, the tension and wonder are only felt in short bursts that aren’t always as compelling as they try to be. One stylistic choice that annoyed me with its frequency was how the characters are sometimes plunged into darkness where it’s hard to see what’s happening; naturally, these scenes are meant to accentuate the light that eventually appears, such as during a momentous sunrise, but the technique got old quickly.
What often kept the film from tipping into boredom was the performances, which are excellent across the board. Michael Shannon is a conflicted protagonist as he seeks the best for his son while never knowing where that may lead, and the extent of his ruthlessness is cleverly kept in doubt. Edgerton also excels in the role of a hesitant believer, as do Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother and Adam Driver as the NSA agent who ends up sympathizing with the boy’s quest (not unlike Charles Martin Smith in Starman). It’s the performances that save Midnight Special, along with some spurts of action that are exceptionally well-timed.
Midnight Special had plenty of potential from the start, but by the end, it’s hard not to feel that something is missing. It’s not that I need my sci-fi to be non-stop action; heck, I’ve heard people complain that Starman is boring. Yet whereas Starman wasn’t afraid to have a bit of fun with its hammy concept, Midnight Special is almost one-note in its seriousness and might have benefited from a less sober tone and a less ambiguous resolution. It undoubtedly has moments of brilliance, but such moments can only help a film so much.
Best line: (Alton) “You don’t have to worry about me.”
(Roy) “I like worrying about you.”
(Alton) “You don’t have to anymore.”
(Roy) “I’ll always worry about you, Alton. That’s the deal.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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