After Take Shelter, I’ll definitely sign up for another Jeff Nichols/Michael Shannon drama about impending doom. This one is maybe more ambitious, definitely more confusingly plotted, and has less well-defined characters and relationships. Shannon and childhood friend Joel Edgerton have kidnapped Shannon’s magic son Alton from a doomsday cult and with help from Shannon’s (ex-?)wife Kirsten Dunst and federal agent Adam Driver they take Alton to fulfill his destiny by ascending to Tomorrowland.
Pretty sure this was meant to evoke the string of psychic-child adventure stories in the late 1970’s: Firestarter (the novel, if not the film) and The Fury. In fact I was so busy trying to remember how Firestarter ends that I may have missed some details about the doomsday cult and why exactly they wanted Alton – or maybe they weren’t even sure of that themselves. If not an instant classic, at least a cool-looking, mysterious movie, full of great acting and shocking moments (I leapt when satellite parts rained down on the gas station). I always appreciate sci-fi stories that show glimpses of larger worlds and deeper mysteries than the film has the time or inclination to explain.
This counted as the kickoff to Cannes Month, since Nichols’ previous movie Mud played Cannes, and his second film of 2016 Loving is about to premiere there. Although I would’ve watched it anyway.
For some reason, the emotional core of this film seems to have gone missing — I can see where it’s supposed to reside, but the love Alton’s parents feel for him is oddly abstract, perhaps because E.T. seems more human than he does.
The bad guys trace [our heroes’ car] through an insurance bill left on a kitchen counter, because even Midnight Special’s sense of conspiracy is grounded in the commonplace. The only explicitly poetic line the movie allows itself is spoken by the cult’s neckless goon, played by character actor Bill Camp. Sitting in his truck, he says, “I was an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of these things?” This is the most the viewer will ever learn about him. Midnight Special defines characters through what they can’t understand, contrasting fear of the unknown with faith in it, and flipping the supernatural into a metaphor for the everyday.
From J. Romney’s review intro:
Cinema has rarely felt so much like a son et lumière as it did in a brief period in the early ’80s, when suddenly shafts of light came shooting out of movie images, as if the screen had been slashed. It became a defining image of Steven Spielberg’s films — Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist too, if you want to count that as one of his … In their purest and most glaring form, those shafts of light had something of the quality of angelic revelation about them. Certainly, you suspected that cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Allen Daviau had taken a close look at certain academic religious paintings of the 19th century, or perhaps at Renaissance church sculpture, with their sheaves of marble emulating beams from the divine. At any rate, it came as a shock to get the impression from these films — and with such eye-searing intensity — that cinema was a matter of light streaming directly out of the screen, rather than just bounced off it. The motif was a powerful way of restoring, if not a holy, at least an authentically otherworldly dimension to cinema.