Only by peeling back the superficial layer of Midnight Special (2016) can you truly get a sense of its frantic desperation, wherein lies the disheartening tone found throughout. Midnight Special is more than just a sci-fi/adventure indie film about a young boy with special powers hunted by others for their own selfish desires. Rather, it’s an effective drama focused on a mother and father desperate to keep their son safe.
Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 8-year-old boy with strange, seemingly supernatural abilities. Through a beam of light that projects from his eyes, Alton has the power to allow others to see things. This very ability is what led to the creation of “The Ranch,” a religious, cult-like organization run by Alton’s adoptive father Calvin (Sam Shepherd).
Calvin and his followers believe Alton is a messenger of God who, after warning them of the fast-approaching end of the world, will ultimately save them. Calvin leads sermons that are influenced by a number code that Alton recites to him. This catches the immediate attention of the U.S. Government, as many of the codes used in Calvin’s sermons are in fact top-secret government information. As the film unfolds, the U.S. Government’s interest in Alton greatly increases when they discover his power, which also includes his ability to make unexplained things happen in their natural world.
Midnight Special opens up in a drab hotel room where Alton, his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s longtime friend and state trooper, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are staying. In the background we see a TV that’s broadcasting a kidnapping report with Alton’s picture at the forefront, along with a photo of his suspected kidnapper: Roy. The camera focuses on the hotel room door, where Lucas pulls back a piece of black duct tape from the peep hole, and begins cutting away the cardboard they’ve taped over the windows. It’s this removal of natural light that we quickly find to be a recurring act throughout the film, and as we keep watching, we find out why, since Alton cannot control his abilities in natural light.
But in looking deeper than that surface observation, the lack of light and muted color play a large role within this film. These elements set up the overall mood in Midnight Special. Along with the eerie and forlorn electronic music composed by David Wingo, it’s as if the audience is already given the conclusion of Alton’s story before it even unfolds.
We find out that Roy has deciphered Alton’s number code from Calvin’s sermons to be coordinates to a location — a place Roy is adamant about getting Alton to as he feels that this is where his son will finally be safe. As Alton’s physical health begins to deteriorate, Roy declines getting medical help for him because he feels that if they make any side stops now, they will never make it to the coordinates in time, as the day in which The Ranch followers believe to be the end of the world is quickly approaching. It’s apparent that Alton’s permanent safety is the utmost importance to Roy.
Early on in their journey, Roy, Alton, and Lucas are joined by Alton’s biological mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Like Roy, she is passionate about getting her son to this “safe place.” It’s important to note here the unfaltering acceptance Roy and Sarah have of their son, of something happening to their child that they don’t fully understand, and the immeasurable faith they have in the supposed safe place. Any parent would want to keep their child from harm, but at what cost? The cost that Roy and Sarah soon find out, is never seeing their son again.
One of the biggest hurdles in their journey is when the U.S. government discovers their location and successfully kidnaps Alton. It’s hard to put into words the sheer dejection that Roy feels after Alton is taken from him. “He’s gone,” Roy says. “The only thing I ever believed in was Alton. And I failed.” He turns away from Sarah and Lucas, and the camera pans to him slowly walking towards a busy street. It almost looks like he’s about to walk out in front of a speeding truck, but at the last second, he half-turns back to Sarah and Lucas. The feeling of Roy’s despair that director Jeff Nichols is able to also instill within his audience in this scene is quite breathtaking.
Through his abilities, and with help from National Security agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), Alton makes his way back to Roy, Sarah, and Lucas. It is in this scene that we find out the actual purpose of getting Alton to the coordinates. Not only will Alton be safe from all who pursue him for his powers, but he will also be united with others like him. This of course means that, as stated previously, Roy and Sarah will never be able to see him again.
There isn’t quite anything more valiant than two parents who will stop at nothing to protect their child, and nothing quite as depressing as two parents knowing that his safety means losing him altogether. Of course, there is a lot more to Midnight Special than I have outlined here. Give it a watch — if not for its wonderful story or captivating science-fiction elements, then perhaps at the very least for its mind-blowing CGI. It comes highly recommended.
— Bree Scott, Asst. Blog Editor