Who would have thought that the best Superman film of the year would be Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, a small-budget, independent sci-fi which doesn’t even feature the superhero. Whilst the Man of Steel is nowhere to be seen, however, this intelligent and exciting drama plays on the superhero’s mythos, telling a story of a young boy coming to terms with his otherworldly powers.
Jayden Lieberher plays the be-googled Alton Meyer, a child who can tune into and hear things from vast distances away, and who occasionally shoots a spectrum of light from his eyes. He doesn’t understand his purpose or place in the world, nor do his parents, Roy and Sarah, who are played respectively by a typically brooding Michael Shannon and a top-form Kirsten Dunst.
The only thing that Alton’s parents are sure of is that their son serves some kind of higher purpose, although many people are split as to what that could be. A religious community where Alton has been living for the last two-years, believes him to be their saviour and will do anything to get him back after he is taken from them by his biological father. The government, on the other hand, believe that this mysterious boy could be a weapon of some kind and that he needs to be contained before it’s too late.
Essentially, it’s the same debate as that featured in Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which had Superman struggling to deal with his place in the world. Nichols deals with these themes with a clarity and nuance that is otherwise absent in the messy and incoherent blockbuster.
It’s these two groups of people who Roy, Sarah and Roy’s old friend, Lucas – played here by the fantastic Joel Edgerton – must evade as they travel across the country in secret, heading toward a location that could just answer the questions surrounding Alton.
This is where the heavy influence from the works of Steven Spielberg really come into play, as the family have to evade the military to reach an unknown destination. At times, it’s all very Close Encounters of The Third Kind with thematic flecks of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial too. There’s a sense of government paranoia that runs throughout the film, as well as a fear of adults – there’s a scene in which an old friend seems to take advantage of Alton’s powers, which feels disturbing and uncomfortable.
The comparison to Spielberg is very high praise indeed for Nichols, who manages to make the small film feel truly spectacular. He not only manages to create that same sense of Spielbergian-awe with the film’s final, tantalising reveal, but manages to tell a story that is full of heart and one that is essentially about a family going to great lengths to protect their son.
Nichols’ script is a triumph and grounds the sci-fi elements in a familiar reality. Often quiet and understated, it makes the bursts of action all the more exciting and the all the more unexpected. In an age where the blockbuster heavily leans on special effects, Midnight Special has to do very little to put you on the edge of your seat.
In more ways than one, Midnight Special is the type of ‘old-school’ summer blockbuster, the likes of which are hardly made today. It captures your spirit and imagination in the same way as the very best film-makers, such as Spielberg, have done for years. Yet it never plays down to its audience, perfectly pitching the balance just right so that adults and younger audiences alike should find something to like.
With an air-tight screenplay from Nichols, great performances from its cast and some stunning cinematography – the film’s palette of oranges, reds and purples makes for some eye-pleasing viewing – Midnight Special isn’t just one of the best films of 2016 so far, but is one of the best sci-fi films to have been made in the last decade. It’s a film that I can see myself re-visiting time and time again over the next few years, and which promises great things to come from its writer and director, Jeff Nichols. Go and seek it out on the big-screen, where it demands to be seen.
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