Indie Stalwart Jeff Nichols, who's written and directed a series of dark, moody features (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories), reteams with his regular star Michael Shannon for an ambitious film that blends standard family-on-the-run drama with bald-faced science fiction. The results are intriguing and original, if not totally successful.
Midnight Special concerns an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) whose father (Shannon), along with an old buddy (Joel Edgerton), has supposedly abducted him. And even though we sense that the father is a decent man, the FBI are still in pursuit. A religious cult leader who claims to be Alton's adoptive father is also in pursuit. Thus far, a fairly normal storyline.
Then we get to the scene where Alton's eyes light up like a Village of the Damned kid gone nuclear, and he shakes a safehouse practically to pieces. Turns out Alton is something quite extraordinary. But what? An alien? A god? Everybody wants to know – most of all, the audience.
Midnight Special is all plot. Amidst the various chases, you're constantly meant to wonder just what is this kid, and what's going to happen to him. Nichols' pacing is excellent and the cast (which also includes Kirsten Dunst as Alton's mother and Adam Driver as a sympathetic scientist working with the FBI) is fully committed, even if their characters don't get much development.
Thing is, though, that Midnight Special works so well as a straightforward drama that its handful of big CG-heavy scenes lend an air of preposterousness. I still like the film, and would recommend it to anyone, but your enjoyment depends on how accepting you are of the science fiction elements, which turn the picture into a grim-faced spin on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.