Science fiction can take in monumental events and big ideas, but the genre’s just as powerful when it deals with the quiet and the intimate. Director Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special owes a certain debt to SF films of the 70s and 80s – among them John Carpenter’s Starman, a film he himself has cited as an inspiration – but it’s also told with the poetic intensity of a Ray Bradbury short story.
Michael Shannon (who previously starred in Nichols’ earlier films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud – all excellent) plays Roy, a father on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). With Joel Edgerton’s tough state trooper in tow, the three flee across Texas from government forces and the creepy representatives of a religious commune. The pursuers’ target is Alton, who appears to be gifted with supernatural powers. The nature of those powers, and the relationship the three leads share with their pursuers, only gradually comes to light.
What might otherwise be another chase thriller stands out thanks to Nichols’ measured storytelling. His use of unexpected imagery – the boy reading comics while wearing bright blue swimming goggles, windows blacked out with sheets of cardboard and duct tape – creates a pleasing air of mystery which lasts from the first scene to the last. This restrained approach pays dividends when it comes to Midnight Special’s set-pieces. They’re few and far between, and could be viewed as small beer in mid-summer, Marvel terms, but the way the plot builds up to them, either slowly or in some cases abruptly, makes them pop like miniature fireworks.
The performances have a similarly slow-burning quality, and the brilliance of the casting and their chemistry together proves to be the film’s backbone. Midnight Special isn’t exactly verbose, its story instead told with a stolen glance or a murmured phrase. Initially, Shannon and Edgerton’s characters seem opaque and difficult to get to know for much of the first half, Adam Driver’s NSA analyst Paul Sevier, one of the many government-types on Alton’s trail, gives the film a spark of personality – once again, Driver shows off his personal brand of off-beat charisma. Yet our empathy for Roy, Lucas and Alton grows almost stealthily; the more we learn about them, the more we can make sense of their intense, furtive personalities.
Alton, the kid who’s alternately regarded as a saviour or weapon depending on who you listen to, emerges as a force to be reckoned with; Lieberher’s performance is pleasingly natural here. Kirsten Dunst is given less to do as Alton’s mother, but again, she makes every scene and every movement count. Likewise Sam Shepard, who plays the quietly sinister pastor of the religious group intent on getting Alton back for their own strange purposes.
Midnight Special’s emotional thread is strengthened by its superb construction. Adam Stone’s Dean Cundey-like cinematography – all lens-flares and epic landscapes – gives the film a quality that is by turns ethereal and rugged. David Wingo’s score sets a hypnotic melody over a throbbing baseline that positively rattles the ribs.
Quiet where most sci-fi thrillers are loud, elegant where most are cluttered, emotional where too many are brash and brainless, Jeff Nichols’ film takes the road-movie framework of Starman and spins it in a wholly different direction. Where Carpenter’s film was about love and loss, Midnight Special deals with a very different stripe of human experience: the love of a parent for a child; the desire to protect them at any cost, and the anguish that results when the outside world comes crashing in.
Midnight Special is out in UK cinemas on the 8th April.