Monday, 4 April 2016

Midnight Special

It must be the season for movies about people with potentially catastrophic superpowers being seen as either a saviour or a weapon depending on your point of view; fortunately for Midnight Special, it's directed by Jeff Nichols instead of Zack Snyder, thereby rendering it several million percent more watchable than Batman v Superman. It doesn't have Hans Zimmer's Wonder Woman theme in it though, so I guess you can't have everything.

Despite those superficial similarities, Midnight Special is nothing like a superhero film. It's a fairly self-contained and muted affair about Alton, a boy with initially unspecified but frankly alarming issues, who's been held captive by a mad religious sect until his pop Roy (Michael Shannon) breaks him out. The clock's ticking though: for reasons best not divulged here, there are just four days for the cult to snatch Alton back, and the same amount of time for Roy to get him to safety, before... well. Before something.

Nichols' film is a low-key mood piece, in a similar vein to the bits of Looper set at Emily Blunt's farm. In fact if Looper had been told entirely from that scary little brat's POV, the result wouldn't be far from Midnight Special. But it's not Rian Johnson that Nichols is channeling the most here: there's another huge presence looming over proceedings, and that presence has a beard and wears a baseball cap and is married to Kate Capshaw. OK fine, it's Spielberg. I'm talking about Steven Spielberg.
Specifically, though quite possibly coincidentally, Nichols appears to be homaging The Berg's early career: the cross-country chase evokes The Sugarland Express, there's an otherworldly Close Encounters vibe going on, and E.T.'s military pursuit of that which they do not fully understand also figures strongly. It's a darker shade of Amblinism for the most part, unshowy and stripped of its trademark sentimentality, although Nichols can't resist throwing in dazzling shafts of white light and dysfunctional parents just to be sure of a full house in his game of Spielbingo.

The danger of evoking these kind of touchstones, as was also apparent in JJ Abrams' Super 8, is that if the end product doesn't turn out to be one for the ages then you probably shouldn't have made the tributes so obvious. And while Midnight Special is definitely worth your while, it never quite fulfils the promise of its best scenes, in which Alton's troubling powers are revealed. The otherworldly elements here play second fiddle to a road movie which takes in Kirsten Dunst (in a fairly thankless and inconsequential role as Alton's mother) and Adam Driver as The One Good Government Guy, and while I'm all for character-based sci-fi I prefer it when the characters aren't quite as thin as they are here.

All credit to Jeff Nichols, whose output is consistently varied (if you don't count the ubiquitous Michael Shannon) and interesting; he's a director well worth watching and almost certainly has a masterpiece in him somewhere. Midnight Special isn't it, but it'll do for now.

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