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Midnight Special Review: Sci-Fi Thriller Starts Strong, Ends Weak

By Julian Roman — March 16th, 2016

Midnight Special is a well-crafted science fiction mystery akin to the seventies classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It doesn't nearly reach that level of greatness, but is a good effort. The film has excellent pacing, keeping you on the edge of your seat as the plot unfolds. It has an ominous tone that boils like a pressure cooker to the climax. My issue is that the big reveal leaves many questions unanswered, and unfortunately, isn't that amazing. In fact, it was kind of a letdown as we've seen similar endings in other films. I was hoping for something more creative, or at least different, to be worthy of the fantastic exposition to that point.

Midnight Special opens with Roy (Michael Shannon), on the run with his son - Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), in rural Texas. They're accompanied by Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a bodyguard of sorts, armed to the teeth and with military training. Alton wears dark goggles, is pale, sickly, and has an extreme aversion to sunlight. He reads comic books using a flashlight. We quickly learn that the trio is wanted by the FBI and a doomsday cult of religious fundamentalists. Roy does his best to keep Alton hidden, but several frightening incidents reveal that Alton has immense supernatural powers. He speaks in tongues, can hear secret NSA radio transmissions, and causes widespread destruction if left alone. Roy is terrified by these events, but has a singular focus. Alton has given coordinates to a location he must get to at a specific time. Roy has no idea what awaits them, but he knows he must get his son there, or the world may face dire consequences.

At the core of the story, beyond the freaky displays, is a father completely devoted to protecting his son. Roy is beyond mystified, but he knows that something is happening to Alton. He's not sure what the outcome will be, but has faith that Alton is being drawn somewhere that will help him survive. Much of this is done with steely countenance and grim determination by Michael Shannon. He delivers a quiet, fierce performance. The film is sparse with dialogue. There's really not much said between the characters. This tactic helps the rising tension. Leaving the audience to infer what is unspoken.

Writer and director Jeff Nichols, who previously worked with Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, successfully establishes an eerie mood. Is Alton a threat? What are these strange abilities? What awaits them at the end of their journey? These questions are palpable concerns that suck you fully into the story. You feel the harried getaway, pursuit, and fear that consumes the characters. Midnight Special swims in a cloud of vague darkness that is both frightening and wondrous at the same time. Nichols gets top marks for technique here.

The problem with a tremendous build-up is the payoff. I was completely enthralled through two-thirds of Midnight Special. The final act did not live up to my expectations. That's a real bummer. There was so much good happening up to the finale. Nichols purposely leaves a lot unanswered. His entire gambit in Midnight Special is to spur the audience's imagination about Alton. He undoubtedly succeeds, but needed a dynamite ending; worthy of all the mystery. It doesn't fizzle out, just strikes me as being mediocre when everything so far had been captivating.

Midnight Special reminds me of the toys hidden in cereal boxes when I was a child. You chow down hoping to get something really cool at the end. But when you finally get to that last bowl, it's nothing that special, just a molded piece of plastic. The cereal was good; you enjoyed eating it, but are unsure it was worth buying to get that toy. Hopefully that analogy isn't too simplistic, but sums up this film perfectly.

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