Midnight Special (2016) **
Listen, I like a big, noisy spectacle of a sci-fi movie as much as the next guy, alright? Go ahead and shoot off some death rays, blow up some cities, crash a few honking big starships into the sun— just do it with panache, and with a modicum of intelligence, and we’ll be square. Nevertheless, I do eventually get tired of that sort of thing, and start craving a smaller, more intimate, more cerebral approach to the genre. That’s been even truer since about 2008, with theater screens as awash in whizbang as they have been. I find it doubly frustrating, then, that science fiction movies in that more relaxed mode are so rarely as good as they ought to be. Midnight Special certainly isn’t. Despite strong performances, vivid characterizations, and a convincingly evoked mood of working class desperation, it suffers from an exhausted premise, a writer/director who can’t be bothered to engage with what few pockets of unique interest his take on that premise has produced, and a crippling overall shortage of clarity and purpose.
There’s been a kidnapping in the podunk Texas town of San Angelo; it’s all over the TV news. Eight-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) was abducted from the ranch where he lived by Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon, from Cecil B. Demented and Bug) and an accomplice (Joel Edgerton, of The Thing and Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones). Both men are reported to be armed, and are presumed extremely dangerous. The situation is actually a great deal more complicated than you’d gather from the media coverage, however. For starters, that ranch where Alton lived? It’s the compound of some creepy post-Christian apocalypse cult, and Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), who calls himself the boy’s adoptive father, is the cult’s leader. Alton’s true father is none other than Roy Tomlin. Also, it seems the boy figured prominently in Meyer’s homebrew eschatology, apparently as some sort of messiah figure. At the very least, he’s important enough to the cult that Meyer sends two of his followers, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Prey 4 Me’s Scott Haze), out to recapture Alton, rather than simply relying on the Proper Authorities. And speaking of Proper Authorities, the FBI has already gotten involved with the case in the person of one Agent Miller (Paul Sparks, of Headspace), even though there’s no indication as yet that Tomlin intends to transport Alton across state lines. Weirder still is how Miller is working with a liaison from the NSA, a guy by the name of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver, from Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Evidently it has something to do with the content of Meyer’s sermons, which are peppered with snippets of intelligence-community communiqués— highly classified stuff that Meyer shouldn’t be able to access without hacking satellites whose very existence is a closely guarded secret, and cracking the best encryption that Uncle Sam’s money can buy. Finally, there’s a specific date that Meyer keeps going on about, something he got from the child. Tomlin is pretty heavily focused on it, too, although he and the cult leader seem not to agree on what it means. Regardless, that date is this Friday, and its proximity has Miller and Sevier rather concerned.
Oh— and there’s a specific place, too. Meyer doesn’t know about that yet, and consequently neither do the G-men when Miller arrests the whole damn cult on suspicion of espionage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. (What? You thought maybe a Texas apocalypse cult wasn’t stockpiling guns and ammo?) Tomlin knows of the place’s existence, and has some idea of its importance, but he doesn’t know exactly where it is. For that, he has to trust an old man called Elden (David Jensen, from The Last Exorcism, Part II and The Skeleton Key). Elden, like Tomlin, is an escapee from Meyer’s sect, and he too is in on Tomlin’s scheme to get Alton away from the ranch and off to wherever it is that he needs to go on Friday. Eldon also has a background in cartography, which has enabled him and him alone to pinpoint the exact patch of Florida panhandle nowhere that Alton has been cryptically babbling about since he learned to talk. It’s a remarkably unassuming spot— unless you believe in ley lines, in which case it starts to look interesting indeed.
You could say something very similar about Alton himself. He might not look like much, but the more time we spend around him, Tomlin, and Lucas (that’s Roy’s accomplice, who turns out, startlingly enough, to be a Texas State Trooper) or listening to the testimony Sevier collects from Meyer and his followers, the more evident it becomes that he can in absolutely no sense be considered an ordinary little boy. The obsessive thoroughness with which Roy and Lucas cover up the windows at all of their lodgings is due less to a desire not to be seen than to the bizarre psychokinetic seizures that overtake Alton whenever sunlight touches him. The cultists believe he has the Gift of Tongues because he can “hear” radio waves, and sometimes goes into trances in which he compulsively parrots whatever is being broadcast on some random frequency. That ability would also seem to explain how all that spy satellite chatter found its way into Meyer’s preaching. Alton’s mere existence seems to interfere with the functioning of electronic devices, although that he can sort of control. I say “sort of” because the mechanism seems tied to the boy’s emotions, and we all know how imperfect an eight-year-old’s command over those is. And then there’s the thing Alton does with his eyes. Involuntarily and uncontrollably, he occasionally shoots beams of intense white light from his pupils, and anyone who meets his gaze while he’s doing so enters into some kind of psychic communion with him. Calvin Meyer had been using it as his church’s highest sacrament, and to judge from Sevier’s interviews with the cultists, no two people ever had quite the same experience. Also, we’ll later learn (or at least see it strongly implied) that Alton isn’t fully conscious during these eyebeam mind-melds, and has no deliberate influence over what they communicate. Lucas was convinced to aid Tomlin by his communion with the boy, but one cultist reports coming away with nothing more than an undefinable sense of peace and tranquility.
Although time is obviously of the essence, there is one stop that Tomlin feels he absolutely must make on his way to Florida. He needs to pick up his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, of Interview with the Vampire and The Crow: Salvation), whom he has not seen since she fled the ranch shortly after Alton was born. Hey, not everybody has the gumption to stick around when a cult leader steals their baby to raise as his own, or to wait eight years for a kidnapping opportunity to present itself, okay? Roy doesn’t begrudge Sarah any of that— or anything else, either— and now that the Big Day is upon them, he wants to make sure the boy’s mother gets a chance to participate. Of course, the prospects for a happy reunion are somewhat limited by the circumstances. There are Doak and Levi to consider, first of all. They firmly believe that having Alton back at the ranch is the one and only thing that will save them or anyone else from damnation when Judgement Day comes this Friday. Then there’s the fellow State Trooper Lucas had to shoot during their first night on the lam. He was wearing a Kevlar vest, and Lucas made a point of calling him an ambulance before fleeing the scene, but that sort of thing can rarely be done without incurring consequences. And most importantly, there’s the NSA satellite that Alton blows up in a fit of pique because he doesn’t like the way it’s looking at him. Sevier and his bosses really aren’t going to like that!
Like a lot of explosion-light science fiction movies, Midnight Special trades heavily on mystery for much of its length, and expends much effort on tracking how the severely abnormal impacts the lives of ordinary people who get caught up in it. Granted, we’re looking at a fairly low value for “ordinary” to begin with, since seven of the ten major characters belong (or belonged) to a loony religious cult, and two of the others are federal agents of the “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” persuasion. But the point is that not even Calvin Meyer was really expecting a child with vast paranormal powers to intrude himself into his life, and that even he had most of his assumptions about the world knocked sideways by having to deal with Alton. Midnight Special is quite good at the character stuff, not least because it has such a terrific cast. I’m especially impressed with Jaeden Lieberher, who is the sort of juvenile actor we desperately need more of. The rural underclass milieu is a nice change of pace, too, from the kinds of settings I’m used to in modern science fiction.
What ultimately undoes Midnight Special is writer/director Jeff Nichols’s Michael Mann-like disdain for exposition. It takes a while for the impact of that fault to be fully felt, however, because at first it seems easy enough to fill in the blanks with familiar and well-understood genre tropes. After all, we’ve all seen E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. We’ve all seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We’ve all at least heard of Escape to Witch Mountain. So it seems natural to assume that Roy, Sarah, and Lucas are taking Alton to his rendezvous point with the Mothership. And because we’ve all seen Alien, it seems equally natural, once Sevier confesses that his superiors “think [Alton’s] a weapon,” to assume that the NSA knows the kid isn’t of this Earth. It seems to go without saying, meanwhile, that Alton himself is well aware of his unearthly nature, and that he’s taken his parents and Lucas into his confidence simply because no eight-year-old child, alien superpowers or no, is going to make it halfway across the breadth of a continent without help. But then we come to the scene in which Alton learns at last what he really is— which means that he didn’t know what he really was up to then! Hot on the heels of that scene comes another in which Sarah confides to Roy that she thinks the true purpose of this whole trek is to take their son back where he belongs— which means that that wasn’t what they thought they were doing all along! Then finally comes the climax, in which the government agents’ behavior makes very little sense unless they’re totally unprepared for the revelations that greet them in the swamps around Tallahassee. Okay, so what did everybody think was going on here? Nichols isn’t telling. Once he’s pulled all the rugs out from under the story to tell us what it isn’t, we’re left with no basis on which to understand what it is. By the final act, the only people remaining with a coherently explicable theory of what’s happening are Calvin Meyer and his cult, and their theory is explicitly wrong. That matters, because if we don’t really know how the major characters conceive of their situation, then we also don’t really understand why they’re doing anything. We don’t really understand the thematic content about parenthood and sacrifice that Nichols seemed to be handling so deftly before. We don’t really understand what any of this means. That’s fatal for a film that seeks to use extraordinary, impossible events as a prism through which to examine the choices real people make under more mundane pressures.