Released 2016. Director: Jeff Nichols
AN ABDUCTION IS UNDERWAY AS THE MOVIE STARTS. Bundled up by his dad and a friend, a boy is shoved into a car as they flee a motel room, where the TV news shows them as fugitives wanted by the FBI. Tyres screech and we’re off, even before the opening titles. At one point, the car speeds ahead in complete darkness, with its headlights turned off to avoid detection. Who are these people and why are they running?
Writer-director Jeff Nichols reunites with his leading man Michael Shannon from the underrated Take Shelter (2011). Both movies share a thematic similarity and feature Shannon as a father under great pressure to protect his family at all costs. An element of mystery from high above is also prominent.
Shannon’s character Roy is father to Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), the 8-year-old boy everyone is after. Helping them escape is Roy’s old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Also hot on their heels are members of a religious cult who have adopted and raised Alton since he was two.
Being sensitive to light and sound, Alton is always wearing a pair of tinted swimming goggles and noise-cancelling headphones. Midnight Special quickly establishes its sci-fi credentials when Alton starts to display shocking powers. Light shines out of his eyes like twin beams of headlights. He can make the house quake and bring down a satellite in orbit raining down like meteor chunks. He also picks up radio signals like an antenna and speaks the foreign language of the broadcast.
This is sci-fi about believing in the unknown. Roy and his estranged wife, Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), embrace the unknown because it’s their son. The government pursues the unknown and wants to capture Alton to learn about his power. The cult community Roy and Alton once belonged to wants to reclaim the unknown because they believe Alton is their saviour.
For the most part, Midnight Special is also an action-packed chase movie right from the start, complete with car crashes, satellite exploding and a violent gunfight at a motel. We’re so busy rushing along with them it’s like you’re running with a crowd because you’ve been swept along. It’s only when Alton is taken away and held in custody that the movie pauses and quietens down. Alton makes a connection with one of the Fed guys (played by Adam Driver), the only outsider with a genuine concern for the boy. In that moment that movie turns a corner and raises the stakes as one of the pursuers now becomes a willing accomplice because he believes in the boy, though he can’t explain why.
There is much that’s unexplained. Alton is a miracle beyond science that even if you don’t understand, you believe. His story certainly bears biblical overtones. Here’s a boy born of Earthly parents but is really from another world. He’s surrounded and protected by a small band of faithful who believe in his powers of deliverance. He’s pursued by those in authority. In the end he departs for someplace bathed in light and awe.
Even though Alton is at the centre of all this, Nichols tells us very little about him. Alton says the world he came from is above us, where “they’re always watching us”. How did he end up being born in this world? Why has he come? To give us a glimpse of what’s beyond? To prove that we are not alone?
When Alton finally makes it to the preordained destination, a spectacular sight materialises. Humans catch sight of a world only the most daring architects would dream of designing. This world is stunning and it’s Alton’s home.
But something is missing. After all the frantic action, destruction, injury and death that lead to this moment, the emphasis is more visual than emotional. The script does not even allow Roy and Alton a proper farewell at the very end after all they've been through together. Alton and Sarah get off the car and run away while Roy hurriedly drives on to mislead the pursuing FBI contingent. It’s a rushed scene in urgent need of a dramatic impact to underscore the strength of the bond between them, the kind that rips your heart out as a parent is forced to give up his child in order to save him.
What’s left is a void, an ache that you feel for Roy as we see him in jail in the final scene, staring out the window at the sun. Maybe it reminds him of the light that shines out of Alton’s eyes. Maybe that’s what Nichols wants us to feel. Sometimes you don’t get to say a final goodbye to a loved one and this is how it feels.
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