Do we even know how to watch movies like "Midnight Special" anymore? By "we," I mean the moviegoing public generally, in The Year of Our Batman 2016?
I wonder. Mid-budget, character-driven science fiction films like this are almost perversely out-of-step with what theatrical audiences have been trained to expect: big, big, big, BIG, BIG!!!!! movies where things crash into other things and monsters box with robots box with superheroes and buildings fall down and go boom. The ad campaign likens it to "E.T." and "Starman," and "Midnight Special" sure does feel like a combination of those two '80s classics, with a healthy dose of Stephen King's "Firestarter" and maybe "The Fury" thrown in. Writer-director Jeff Nichols, cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Julie Monroe, and composer David Wingo have obviously studied all of those VHS-era touchstones. But in the end the film has its own peculiar, often marvelous energy.
A big part of that energy comes from the script's daring structure. The film begins so deep into what would normally be considered The Story that you might feel as if you stumbled upon a three-hour film at the one hour mark. Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run with Roy's son Alton (Jaeden Lieberhahr). As the story unfurls, you fill in the pieces: the boy and Roy were both raised at a compound lorded over by a cult leader (Sam Shepard) who, like his followers, was awed by Alton's seemingly heaven-sent powers, which include a genius-level mathematical ability as well as the capacity to...well, maybe it's better to leave most of that out, because the film does a surprisingly adept job of doling out the revelations and setting them up just right (there's a scene in a car where something happens that you honestly did not expect, and the timing is nearly as brilliant as that of the rotting face that pops out of the porthole in "Jaws"). Nichols was raised in the American South and has deep respect for working-class people in the former Confederate states and the faith that binds them together (even the agnostics and atheists, who have to learn the language even if they prefer not to speak it). The movie bridges the secular and spiritual worlds through science fiction imagery and faith-based back-story, creating something like a hybrid of "Close Encounters" (a film whose original screen story, worked over by the former Calvinist Paul Schrader, likened the experience of Roy Neary on the mountain road to that of Paul on the road to Damascus), a kidnapping-driven road film, and a Bible movie.
The film's spirituality, its trust in a world that is (quite literally) beyond our ability to sense, turns out to be the key to this small film's effectiveness. It's not a masterpiece, and in some ways it felt (to me) like a bit of missed opportunity, in that the ellipses and sprinted-through and muttered-under-the-movie's-breath parts too often seem like attempts to dance around budgetary limitations than an approach that's organically tied to the story that Nichols is telling. (If he had another five million, I bet he would've shown us more of that, er, vision at the end.) And there were scenes I wanted more of, characters I wanted to spend more time with, action scenes I wish had gone on for a couple of beats longer so that they felt truly transporting (like the bike ride in "E.T." or some of the car chases in John Carpenter's "Starman") as opposed to "merely" tense and elegant (that "merely" is in scare quotes for a reason -- the action has real personality despite its relative poverty of means).
But these are quibbles. What ultimately matters in "Midnight Special" is not the specifics of Alton's powers but the emotion conveyed between the characters: the boy and his father, the boy and his mother (played by Kirsten Dunst, who's seeming more like the second coming of Sally Field with every new role), the father and his friend Lucas, the boy and a government researcher. That last character is played by Adam Driver, who could be Jeff Goldblum's long lost son. As in a Carter- or Reagan-era Spielberg film, he's the one empathetic person working for an otherwise faceless and militaristic government agency. The character may remind you of Peter Coyote's unnamed "keys" in "E.T." or Francois Truffaut's Lacombe in "Close Encounters." He ultimately comes to believe in Alton, just like Roy (whose name makes the Spielberg connection official) and Lucas and the boy's mother, Sarah (a nod to "The Terminator," probably). In other words, he converts.
The last fifteen minutes are harrowing and close to transcendent; they raise the entire movie by a letter grade, not because of what they show, or refuse (or fail) to show, but because of their electrifying envisioning of absolute selflessness. Love becomes its own religion here, as well as its own form of higher math. I wouldn't mind seeing this film on a (very long) double-bill with a gigantic film in the same vein, Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar." Both are a throwback to a time when characterization and feeling trumped spectacle, no matter how dazzling the spectacle ultimately proved to be.