Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sci-Fi Watch: Midnight Special (2016)

Well, you can't knock his reading material selection

The Alamo Drafthouse was really pushing Midnight Special (2016), and so I saw the trailers a few times over the past couple of months.  In general, they at least piqued my curiosity, and in a weekend when I wanted to get out of the house and I was opting out of superherodom, I decided to give this one a whirl.  A college pal I've mostly lost touch with did the score for this movie, so I had all the more incentive to see this one, I guess.

The movie is uncomplicated, and were it not for a few heart-stopping moments, I'd say it was completely safe as family fare.  But, really, I'd advise for kids 13 and up.  What violence does occur is handled with something like the shock of reality ( I assume.  I don't get wrapped up in gun-play as often as you think an IT manager would.), which works very, very well in the movie, but not something for the wee ones.

The movie begins in-media-res, Alton Meyer is the subject of Amber Alerts across Texas, local news stations are putting up pictures of his birth father, Roy (Michael Shannon), as the abductor.  We learn that Meyer was the adopted son of a charismatic preacher (Sam Shepard) in a small commune/ cult of religious fundamentalists - based on the very real folks you see sometimes coming into town in Austin in their colorful dresses out of the 19th Century (and sometimes bonnets).*  They aren't anti-technology, but they certainly keep to themselves.

Roy is moving Alton eastward with the help of a man named Lucas, who seems baffled by the boy, but utterly devoted to the mission they are on.  Meanwhile, an NSA agent played by Star Wars' Adam Driver joins an FBI manhunt for Alton, interviewing (not interrogating) the members of the flock, who report visions and poltergeist-like activity around the boy.  They see Alton's acts as divine, and themselves as chosen, and he's going to help them all reach salvation on the very specific upcoming date of March 6.

From a plotting standpoint, there is literally nothing new in this movie.  In fact, it's near devoid of twists and turns.  This doesn't seem to be a product of cutting so much as linear storytelling with no time for extraneous sub-plots, and a desire to capture tone and mood via character.  It both leaves the movie free of narrative artifice in many ways, but the A-to-B-to-C story can feel telegraphed.  I know nothing of Director Jeff Nichols' interests or influences, but it feels like a certain level of risk was unnecessarily avoided or he's not used to the contrivances that so often pile up in these "human Maguffin" sci-fi films, from ET to Escape to Witch Mountain.

Nichols does reference Alton's awareness of his alternate nature via 80's-era DC comics, which he consumes silently throughout the course of the film.  And, at that, two alien, energy-ridden beings in Starfire in the Perez-era Teen Titans (we see her battling her evil sister), and Superman, crippled by Kryptonite (which seems to alarm Alton a bit).

The movie is directed in near-mumble-core.  Characters speak in short bursts, in natural language.  Exposition gets dropped occasionally, but relevant plot details are woven in as organically as possible, avoiding as much as possible the "here's what's going on" business we get over and over in $200 million movies, lest we confuse the dummies.

Nichols' ability to set tone - helped tremendously by the David Wingo score - .is the engine beneath the film.  This is an escape/ road-trip movie with a ticking clock and with raw nerves and shattered people driving to god-knows-what when they reach their destination, led only by the visions shared with them by the young boy of mysterious ability.

And yet...

The movie is oddly weightless.  There's so much at stake for the main characters (including Kirsten Dunst, added along the way), but seemingly for no one else aside from busy-body 80's Spielbergian G-Men who seem interested in, first, a possible terrorist/ Waco-type threat, and then in chasing down our magical little boy.

There's barely any subtext to the film, barely anything to hang onto once the final scenes wraps.  And while you've seen a non-embarrassing sci-fi story,

In general, I liked the movie, but mostly I liked the craftsmanship of most of the package.  It doesn't have the cutesy appeal of Abrams' Super 8 (which abruptly forgot the aliens are supposed to have redeeming charm in these pictures), but it just needed more meat on the bone if it was going to be a satisfying main course.

If the movie has some fascinating bits to it, it certainly includes Shannon's performance as Roy, the find of Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, and the odd sensation of a bit of joy I had that the conclusion of the film was concrete in most ways - they didn't just go 2001 on us and hope we could sort it out, when it seemed, absolutely, that that's where they were headed.  Somehow I found that decision oddly bold and unlike what I expect out of most people who think that makes their film somehow "important" instead of "not quite done when the credits roll".

*I believe the folks we see in Texas are mostly Mennonites, a religious sect with a particular lifestyle that looks Amish from the outside (but is not), and pretty danged far away from a gun-toting Branch Davidian cult.


JAL said...

41 year old Justin really liked this movie. 11 year old Justin really loved it.

I'd lie if I said i couldn't wait to get home and give Syd a great big hug.

Also, it felt more Carpentery that Speilbergy, if you ask me.

The League said...

It definitely occurred to me that, as the movie was about the unspoken wonder of gazing upon your child at that age of infinite possibility, and infinite possible threat, that I would get the point only in abstract. This is a movie for parents, parenting writ large and blown up to sci-fi scale.

I'll confess, I probably saw more Firestarter and ET in this movie than I did anything Carpenter-esque. Maybe some tone?

JAL said...

Tone, for sure. I kept thinking "Starman" and it seemed to have more of underlying aggressiveness and paranoia that Carpenter tends to bring. The score, as well.

The League said...

yeah! I can see that. between you and me, I loved Dave Wingo's score. Hoping Mondo puts it out as a record like they did for Mud.