Studio: Warner Brothers
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Producer: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Jensen
A young boy with special powers goes on the run with his father to escape a religious commune as well as the government.
With great power comes great responsibility. In the case of “Midnight Special,” this applies more to the people protecting that power than it does to the one wielding it.
Eight-year-old Alton exhibited extraordinary abilities at an early age. The source and full scope of what Alton can do remains a mystery, though this hasn’t dissuaded Pastor Calvin Meyer from reforming his Third Heaven Ranch around the boy.
In addition to providing seemingly spiritual experiences to cult followers connecting with light emanating from his eyes, Alton possesses a peculiar power to pull intangible transmissions out of thin air. Calvin may not know what they mean, but he incorporates these confidential codes into his sermons as presumably divine messages. That draws the attention of the FBI and the NSA, who don’t see Alton as a benevolent boy at all. They consider his gifts a threat to national security.
With a religious radical out to exploit him, and the U.S. government aiming to capture him, Alton goes on the run with his father Roy. Roy is as in the dark as anyone about the cryptic transmissions’ significance. But he is certain that his son is destined for a greater purpose, and the intercepted coordinates and communications must be guiding them toward that unknown goal. Aided by Roy’s childhood friend Lucas and the boy’s birth mother Sarah, father and son take a clandestine trek from Texas to Florida to discover the truth about Alton’s powers, provided no one catches up to them first.
Incredible abilities don’t always equate to superheroic status. While comic book characterizations are usually king in such cinematic scenarios, “Midnight Special” emphasizes the “human” in superhuman with a realistically grounded look at how extraordinary powers might affect ordinary people.
Most supermen have an Achilles heel. For “Midnight Special,” its greatest strength is also its kryptonite. The cast is overflowing with incredible actors including the always excellent Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, David Jensen, Adam Driver of “Star Wars” and “Girls,” and Paul Sparks from “Boardwalk Empire” and “House of Cards.” The dark side of that coin is the movie overcomplicates itself with far more characters than it needs for the story, and the plot doesn’t always have a place to put everybody.
Sam Shepard isn’t seen again following his first act scenes as the religious ranch leader. For a role ultimately supplanted by Adam Driver’s NSA agent, Paul Sparks’ appearance as an FBI agent basically amounts to an extended cameo. Performances are terrific from top to bottom, though there would be much more punch in the personalities if their purposes weren’t spread across so many people.
Of the personalities that are put onscreen however, there isn’t an unlikable actor in the entire cast. In a way, it’s difficult to fault the film for staffing itself so well, even though it doesn’t have a narrative need for all of the talent on hand.
“Midnight Special” could use a little more Amblin Entertainment sense of wonderment to counterbalance its often weighty examination of how far one is willing to run on faith for the benefit of family. Then again, that isn’t writer/director Jeff Nichols’ style or objective.
Knowing as little as possible about the plotline’s destination before settling in is ideal, since piecing the puzzle together is a key part of the intrigue. “Midnight Special” is essentially a chase movie with subtle science-fiction accenting a drama-centered core, as opposed to purely popcorn action propelling noisy flash and fire. The mystery of Alton’s full capabilities and the final fate ahead still engages suspense throughout, while the rumbles from Alton’s uncontrollable energy bursts are frighteningly explosive.
But Nichols has an intention beyond entertainment to explore thought-provoking adult themes with a family-friendly tone. When it comes to depicting superpowers on the silver screen, consider “Midnight Special” a calmer, more introspective alternative to the zips, bangs, and pows of an “Avengers” or “Batman v Superman” sight and sound extravaganza.
Review Score: 70