5.30pm, Fairly Ordinary
I realised from a fairly young age that I was destined to be one of those sci-fi types – BBC2's run of classic movies from the 50s, 60s, and 70s on Tuesday nights in early 1983 probably did for me, if it wasn't already the case – and so as I staggered into adolescence I diligently recorded and watched any movie which was tagged as even vaguely SF in the TV guides. Some of these I enjoyed (Westworld, Trancers, Teenage Comet Zombies), some bored me nearly unto death (Quintet), some freaked me out entirely (The Man Who Fell To Earth), and some I found totally unmemorable (...um, I'll get back to you). And a lot of them were just really obscure and undistinguished (I expect I am the only person in the world who remembers films like Starcrossed, Cherry 2000, and Circuitry Man... actually, Cherry 2000's not bad). Nevertheless, I persisted, I stayed loyal, I always watched to the end.
Young people of the future with similar tendencies would probably find themselves watching... (What am I thinking of...? Who patiently scours the TV guide for obscure SF movies any more? Sometimes I feel like a chunk of history that hasn't quite stopped moving yet) ...speaking hypothetically, if Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special had shown up on BBC2 or Channel 4 when I was about 14, it's exactly the kind of film I would have made a point of watching just for its genre elements. Would I have found it particularly rewarding experience? Well...
The film opens with two men, Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) on the run with a young boy, Roy's son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, and I don't know how to pronounce that either). They are on the run from the members of a cult-like religious group, the police, and the government, all because Alton has unusual qualities, such as being able to listen in on satellite communications without the need of technology, although on the other hand he can't go out in the sunlight without starting to explode and nearby machinery breaking down. The trio are on a mission to get Alton to somewhere in the vicinity of Tallahassee, Florida at a particular time.
However, the various government agencies interested in exploiting Alton's powers have working the case top analyst Paul Sevier (that bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver, in a role which allows him to give free rein to his essential spoddiness). Sevier has figured out where they are going, but perhaps he sees Alton as something more than just an asset to be studied...
(Kirsten Dunst is in it as well, in a resolutely non-glam role as Alton's mum, and she's pretty good too. Shame she doesn't do more movies.)
Midnight Special (no, the title doesn't really get explained) plumps for a sort of in media res beginning, with the guys on the run from everyone, the FBI descending on the cult, Sevier already having done a lot of the spadework on Alton, and so on. This isn't exactly an exposition-heavy movie, so I really had to figure out what was going on for myself, which wasn't a problem at first. However, as it went on and on without very much really being explicitly articulated, I did find a certain sort of fatigue threatening to set in.
What is it with this current trend for genre movies without what I would consider acceptable levels of exposition? Here are some people. They are doing something. What does it signify? Why are we showing them doing it? We're not going to tell you. You'll just have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I'm not demanding every film have a super-simplistic storyline that's slowly and carefully articulated in the foreground of the movie, but currently everyone seems to be trying to be Shane Carruth with a frankly quite variable success rate.
Well, in the end, it all turns out to be quite a lot like many other things you will probably have seen before – there's a substantial dollop which could have come from any number of X Files episodes, more than a dash of John Carpenter's Starman, and so on. These are very respectable sources, but the tone of Nichols' film isn't quite right to do them justice – everything is quite dour and restrained. Michael Shannon's performance sets a note of sombre intensity which colours everything else on the screen. What we are watching is very serious and profound: there is no danger of anyone ever forgetting that. Important and meaningful things will be happening. Why they are important and what the meaningful things actually mean are questions that the film doesn't actually get around to answering, unfortunately.
I mean, I can understand the urge to do a piece of serious-minded SF or fantasy – Midnight Special probably wants to be the former but is actually the latter, I would say – without surrendering to the perceived need to be all ironic or zany, but this film takes itself so seriously for so little apparent reason that it's ultimately rather impenetrable: cold, austere, easy to admire but almost impossible to truly like.
I wanted to like it, for the subject matter is my sort of thing, the performances are strong, and the production values are excellent, but ultimately I found it all to be hard work. I know that Nichols and Shannon have very respectable indie reputations – presumably why Shannon has turned up in big movies, for example Zach Snyder's current festival of gloom masquerading as a superhero film – but this project really doesn't do their talents justice.