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Midnight Special

Entry updated 17 November 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (2016). Warner Bros presents a Tri-State Pictures production in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment and Faliro House Productions. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Cast includes Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard. 112 minutes. Colour.

Child Messiah Alton Meyer (Lieberher) is pursued by the FBI to a Parallel World above the Florida panhandle.

Of all the mistakes Mainstream Writers of SF make when using the conventions of Genre SF in their work, reducing them to serve merely as metaphors for the emotions of characters is among the most common: the epistemologies of Fantastika and the New Wave of science fiction furnish valuable means of making a text seem both fully realized and revelatory of an imagined life beyond the humdrum tyranny of human existence. Jeff Nichols, celebrated writer and director of the apocalyptic mental health drama Take Shelter (2011) and the coming-of-age Crime feature Mud (2012) – the latter film being inspired by the Mississippi-set novels of Mark Twain – here shows himself more familiar with the dramatic requirements of Cinema than with the vernacular of the SF Megatext, and Midnight Special, an otherwise intelligent and deeply-considered film, suffers as a result.

Two men are holed up in a motel, watching an amber alert on the television news (see Media Landscape) about the abduction of eight-year-old Alton Meyer: Meyer sits on the floor of the room the men occupy – its windows are blacked-out with cardboard – reading Comics. These men turn out to be Roy Tomlin (Shannon), Alton's biological father, and Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper and Roy's long-lost friend from childhood. The pair has abducted Alton from "The Ranch", a quasi-Christian Religious cult based in rural Texas that has been worshipping Alton's ability to speak in tongues (see Linguistics) and emit beams of pure blue light from his eyes: the cult sees the boy's Psi Powers as the harbingers of a forthcoming Rapture-like apocalypse. Cult-leader Pastor Calvin Meyer (Shepard), the boy's adopted father, is interviewed by NSA Communications expert Paul Sevier – played here with some Humour and panache by Adam Driver in the wake of his portrayal of the Villain Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) – and pointedly asked how streams of numbers from encoded satellite transmissions have found their way into Meyer's sermons; Pastor Meyer insists Alton received them as revelation from a holy source.

The in medias res opening works well, but provides little or no context or provenance to the themes of the story other than by reference to the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, or through allusion to the small-town supernatural vibe of the novels of Stephen King. "It's really tricky, because people – especially ... in the sci-fi genre – are thirsty for detail, and this film might be a frustration, for sure," Nichols said in an interview with the entertainment website Den of Geek on 5 August 2016, just as it was becoming clear that Midnight Special would make back little more than a third of its $18 million budget at the box office. Where Starman (1984) played with messianic tropes in the guise of a road movie, it did so by fully integrating its visitor from outer space into its mundane setting, and where Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) intensified the mystery and Sense of Wonder created by the arrival of its extra-terrestrials, it delivered a pay-off in the form of a UFO landing that changed both the people involved and the world in which they lived, thereby lending its thematic delivery mechanism much greater emotional resonance. The Aliens in Midnight Special, by contrast, are announced but never depicted, their City from another Dimension appears as last-minute decoration rather than as Conceptual Breakthrough or agency of new understanding, and there is no clear explanation for their intentions or affects for the greater part of the Midnight Special's running time and nor, therefore, for the corresponding strength of feeling of the film's human characters. This all conspires to give the film a curiously flat, unworked-out quality, and a dramatic arc which works neither as fable nor as science fiction.

Midnight Special remains an interesting film, full of acute observations about father-son relationships, the patience, tenacity and restraint of the responsible parent and the spiritually-charged atmosphere of the southern states of America. The psychodrama between the human family at the centre of the alien irruption does not, however, connect to the story's world-sized theme, despite a series of knowing, and sometimes amusing, nods to the science fiction filmography of Steven Spielberg, such as when the cult's ranch is used as base for government agencies to investigate extra-terrestrial phenomena, just as the school was in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or in the title Midnight Special itself, which is a reference to the folk song covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival that featured in the opening scene of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), also directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg would, however, have significantly upped the emotionality and excitement of a story like this, most likely by including greater degrees of action, montage and Paranoia, as indeed might have a writer like Philip K Dick, whose counterpoint-fusion-coda technique would have worked very well in a story with this shape. The shootings, military chases and meteor storms in Midnight Special seem rather bloodless by comparison, and its denouement seems to produce nothing more than regret and a faint air of confusion in those left behind. "There's a world built on top of ours," says Alton Meyer. "People live there. I think they're like me." And we, the viewers, are left to take his word for it, having caught only a glimpse of the dreaming spires of the world beyond this, and without even the suggestive and ungraspable truths of Fabulation from which to glean the meaning of the story we have just seen. Jeff Nichols's evident command of the effect of the sudden appearance of a hidden world on human domesticity has, however, resulted in his being slated to write and direct a forthcoming remake of Alien Nation (1988). [MD]


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