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Screen » Film

Sci-fi Chase Film Runs Short on Depth

"Midnight Special" fails to satisfy

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"Midnight Special" is an art-house science fiction/thriller/road movie with a stellar cast, interesting director and a script that unpeels layers of mystery throughout its running time. As entertaining and enthralling as the film is, however, all of the disparate pieces don't add up to a satisfying whole.

"Midnight Special" tells the story of a boy, Alton Meyer, who is either a prophet, an alien, or something in between. Two men have taken the boy from the compound of a cult that worships and studies everything the boy says as scripture. As the cult sends some dangerous men after the young man, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are also hunting him, afraid he is a weapon or something infinitely more terrifying.

Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton play Roy and Lucas, the men protecting the boy. Although Roy is the boy's father and Lucas is Roy's long-lost friend, the men's dialogue to each other and the boy is so muted and understated that even the smallest plot points become mysterious. The boy, played by Jaeden Lieberher, picks up radio waves in his head and shoots white hot beams of light from his eyes, so a little ambiguity serves the film well. However, the script becomes an exercise in withholding, something writer/director Jeff Nichols is evidently doing intentionally.

The audience is shoved right into the danger and intrigue, so information about the characters and their relationships to each other comes at a trickle, sometimes too late to matter. When all is said and done, the story the film is telling is actually quite a simple one. It feels as familiar as an episode of "The X-Files" mixed with elements of "E.T." Since the story that Nichols is telling is so basic, the continual obfuscation of plot points comes across as feigned complexity instead of mysteriousness.

"Midnight Special" fails to use its excellent cast effectively, with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton doing OK with what they have, but their arcs feel only partially realized. Adam Driver plays a friendly NSA numbers guy who is hunting Alton. Driver's muddiness of motivation is symptomatic of the failure of the entire film. As entrancing as everything is to watch, all of the pieces don't add up to a satisfying movie, let alone a coherent one.

The film is beautifully photographed with pacing that keeps everything moving right along. "Midnight Special" is so deeply unsatisfying because of how easy it is to love something so bizarrely ambitious, yet ultimately undercooked. The final shot of the movie is excellently conceived, but so poorly executed that the sour taste left behind stains the entire film-going experience. The ending, combined with all of the other ambiguous plot holes throughout, leave the film feeling like a first draft of an excellent idea.

This should have been a hugely satisfying and brilliant project because of everyone involved. Instead, it is just a middling idea stretched to two hours of thin plot, hidden by quiet conversations and almost self-parodying quasi-mystery. "Midnight Special" is sci-fi for people who aren't really sci-fi fans.

"Midnight Special"

Dir. Jeff Nichols

Grade: C

Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX

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