The Horror Honeys: Sci-Friday ~ The Star Child Has Arrived

Sci-Friday ~ The Star Child Has Arrived

A Sci-Fi Honey New Release Review by Katie

Midnight Special (2016)

It took nearly a month for a sluggishly paced wide release rollout to reach multiplexes across this land, but the latest collaboration between writer/director Jeff Nichols and his lead actor/muse Michael Shannon is finally here. The most recent in an exceptional collection of finely-tuned independent dramas, including Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), Midnight Special is the first joint effort from Nichols and Shannon that falls squarely in the realm of science fiction, using their backgrounds in drama as an emotional through-line. Supporting Shannon in his lead role are the supremely talented Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Sam Shepard, lending this latest feature one hell of a cinematic pedigree and some fairly lofty expectations to fulfill. So was Nichols’ highly anticipated sci-fi drama worth the wait – or does it collapse under the strain of its own grandiose ambition?

Exuding frightening amounts of the brooding intensity he’s known for, Michael Shannon plays Roy; an apostate from an FLDS-like religious cult that viewed his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), as a holy messenger for their theological way of life. Aided by State Trooper Lucas (Edgerton), the three take a harrowing road trip to Alton’s biological mother (Dunst) in order to bring Alton to an undisclosed place at a specific time to avert a prophesied cataclysmic event. Hot on their trail are members of the cult dispatched as kidnapper-assassins, as well as government agents (including Driver, doing his best ‘young Jeff Goldblum’ impression), who are out to protect their own surreptitious agenda. Oh, and did I mention that Alton can communicate telepathically, is allergic to sunlight, and can shoot laser beams out of his eyes?

He can.
If you’ve seen a Jeff Nichols film before, the outlandish sci-fi element is the one thing that is likely to throw you for a loop. In nearly every other aspect, Midnight Special is true to the writer/director’s style; it is set in rural pockets of America, with a story that is so deliberately paced that it often slows to a near-crawl. Indeed, the actors in Take Shelter barely speak above the gentle timbre of a whisper throughout the entire film, and Midnight Special is similarly measured in mood and tone. This contemplative style can be effective when building tension or punctuating a scene with sudden eruptions of violence, but for many viewers, it can be an exercise in tedium. 

Are we there yet?
As a tried and true fan of Nichols’ previous films – as well as the work of Michael Shannon, who elevates practically any material to legendary status – I was ready to meet the challenge presented by Midnight Special’s characteristically protracted storytelling. What turned out to be the greatest disappointment, however, is in the film’s struggle to wholly embrace a cinematic identity. Touted as an Amblin-like adventure by the filmmakers themselves – a throwback to Speilbergian whimsy of decades past – Midnight Special is too violent and too maturely-themed to appeal to today’s youth or even the childlike wonder of adults who grew up with the likes of E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film’s truly imaginative moments are often overshadowed by a gritty reality that feels more akin to the Coen Brothers than Cocoon. While the entire cast delivers expectedly heartfelt and engaging performances, some of their emotional resonance goes astray as Midnight Special zigzags towards a preordained conclusion, leaving much to be desired from the experience as a whole.

Still, Michael Shannon remains awesome.
Nichols has never been a filmmaker that likes to cleanly deliver explanations on a silver platter, so anyone sitting through Midnight Special has to make a concerted effort just to understand what may be going on from one scene to the next. It unravels like a peeled onion, each scene revealing tiny details in a manner so offhand that it threatens to further obscure the mystery behind Alton’s true significance: is he a weapon? Is he a savior? Or is he just a son? There are moments of beauty and brilliance along the path to discovering the answer, but whether or not you think the end result is worth the journey is up to you. 

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three laser-eyeballed star-children out of five.

Midnight Special is currently playing in theaters nationwide!

What did you think of Midnight Special?
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