Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cinematographer: Adam Stone
by Susan Bartley
I consider Jeff Nichols one of the more exciting filmmakers working, regarding Mud as one of the Top 50, arguably Top 25 films of the 2010s. I knew nothing about Midnight Special except that it was a sci-fi film involving an alien child. The story opens with the exciting duo of Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Edgar Wright), as old buddies who are caring for a young boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) who wears blue swimming goggles, can’t be out in the sun, and is an alien. We’re thrown right into the middle of the story, as police search for the boy and the FBI are raiding some type of cult religious commune. It’s all a perfect set up - especially as the cult’s leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd) and Homeland Security Investigator Sevier (Adam Driver) enter into the picture. Unfortunately, the story falls victim to numerous plot holes, which while minor at first eventually explode into distraction by the third act.
For instance, although Alton Meyer can’t go out into the sun, after the two are being pursued by the police, the group decides to part ways, with Alton and his dad Roy heading through the woods. Suddenly Alton says he actually can be in the sun, and after a strange force field blossoms around him, sunlight’s danger suddenly dissipates, no longer an issue. Or when Calvin Meyer is investigated for his strange commune, which we assume revolves around the boy and his extraterrestrial connection, is soon abandoned by the narrative, leaving us wondering what became of it all. Or how at the end, although we’re dealing with FBI and Homeland Security, after Sevier is left alone with the boy and transported off the government compound (I’m still wondering how this was done exactly; not in the sense that I need the precise series of events spelled out for me, so much as wondering how no one seemed to notice they were gone. Given that there was a small army searching for Alton, why wouldn’t they unleash the fleet of helicopters to find them walking down the street a few blocks away?). Any way - Sevier takes the boy back to Roy and Lucas, requesting to be handcuffed to avoid him looking like he had any involvement. Still, in the end in a kind of funny-but-not-really moment, Sevier enters the interrogation room to talk to Roy in which case wouldn’t Sevier have mentioned meeting Lucas and getting handcuffed, and if so, why would they trust him to interrogate the guy alone? It seems like a compromised situation and sacrificing logic for a bit of humor.
On RogerEbert.com, I was disheartened to see a critic say that he appreciated how the film didn’t spell everything out with you, leaving me wondering if this was a case where because it was made by a High Class Director, and shot in an artsy and beautiful way, that they were willing to ignore logical leaps because the film looks and feels serious and so it must be of sound structure.
I kept thinking of comparisons to the classic 1970s/1980s children's sci fi movies - WarGames, Starman, D.A.R.Y.L., Explorers, and probably the most relevant, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All of these films are great, functioning as what they’re meant to be - good, popular stories; not trying to be some grand artistic experiments, all the more frustrating in that many of these films are shunned for leaps in logic, while Midnight Special receives a free pass. If you were to take away all of the bells and whistle (that is the artsy style) then this film would have been no different, unable to hide behind this new blend between High Class Adult Art and Popular Cinema.
The movie is fun to watch, but scenes take too long to get going and fail to pay off. For instance, when Alton returns to the motel, there is a near cringe worthy moment when everyone stands teary eyed as Alton pulls the cardboard off the window that’s blocking the sunlight, explaining something that I don’t remember, only that everyone was overly emotional and the scene was about twice as long as it needed to be. Or when Roy, Alton, Lucas, and Sarah are all trapped in a traffic jam, decide to pull onto the shoulder, able to squeeze through two Humvees whose entire purpose is to prevent anyone from getting through, all while soldiers stand with the guns raised, prepared to fire. And how immediately after, although they’re now driving a broken vehicle, with the Army shortly behind, they turn down a lone road and are able to have another long and emotional scene, far beyond any generous extension of logic in terms of how slow the Army’s approach would actually be.
The most important rules of sci-fi - more so than horror given that science is in the very name - is to abide by your own rules and logic. This film seemed to honor them when convenient and abandon them when it would harm or impede the story. It was too keen on remaining cryptic and revealing as little information as possible, which then poses far more questions than it can answer. It seemed like a film drawn from images and feeling rather than logic; where Nichols might have “seen” a boy and his dad navigating through the American South, chased down by the government, with a strange cult involved, more determined to see that journey through to the end than to let very obvious obstacles stand in the story’s way. It’s not a terrible film. I might even revisit it to see if I’m being too critical. It just was far from Nichol’s best.
BELOW: The best part of the film
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