SXSW film review: Midnight Special

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – “There’s a world built on top of our world. The people there, I think they’re like me.”

Midnight Special is a science fiction thriller and the next film from Writer-Director Jeff Nichols. Nichols had a previous indie hit in Matthew McConaughey’s 2012 return to Hollywood stardom, Mud. Previously working in an Austin ad agency, Nichols returns to Texas, San Angelo specifically, with a father that knows his son his meant for something more and will do anything to make it happen.

Man of Steel’s and Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon is Roy, the father who has taken his son, Alton (relative newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult in West Texas and is determined to save his life. Aided by his childhood friend and Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Lucas (Zero Dark Thirty’s Joel Edgerton) and his Ex-wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy is heading east to a secret location.

The cult, who looks to Alton as the voice of God due to some otherworldly powers he has gained as he aged, is not going to let him go. Throw in an NSA agent, played by Adam Driver hot off Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that has been listening in to the cult’s sermons and you have something that feels strangely familiar.

Did you like Steven Spielberg’s E.T.? Midnight Special follows a lot of the same notes as that 80’s hit. Nichols, in his South By Southwest Film introduction even alluded to that it would. It’s not a bad thing; viewed as an homage to some of those revered 80’s sci-fi family films, this is a great watch.

As Nichols tells his story there is a slow build-up to what is really happening. The film opens with an Amber Alert about the kidnapping, after which, the chase to get Alton back and where he ultimately needs to go doesn’t let up. The clock is ticking for both Alton and the cult and it nothing is going to stop Roy from getting his son where he needs to be.

But, when the film reaches that destination, there will ultimately be a split opinion on how audiences will process the ending.

American audiences are accustomed to rosy resolutions. If you like thinking and discussing at the end of a film, Midnight Special delivers. 2016 audiences are also accustomed to big space battles and lasers in their sci-fi. If you need that, this may not be for you. The $18 million budget though was well spent.

What special effects there are really lend a lot to the reminiscent feel of family sci-fi and wonderment and awe. One such scene involving the destruction of a gas station should spark those feelings for sure.

As for performances, the bulk of the film, and its ending, relies on the believability of Roy as a father. Shannon, known for his intensity, nails it. Driver, despite still sounding like his Star Wars villain Kylo Ren, will also be one of those things that lead the watcher to remember those similar sympathetic government-types in popular sci-fi films. Edgerton, the recent believer in Alton’s destiny, is solid as a loyal component of the mission.

The only one that feels kind of left out is Dunst. For being Alton’s mother, there doesn’t seem to be the same connection to the viewer as Roy has. The script failed to build their relationship.

Overall, Midnight Special is an enjoyable time that should provide science fiction lovers a great discussion.

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