REVIEW: Midnight Special

9 04 2016

SXSW Film Festival

NOTE: This piece is adapted from a piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine at SXSW comparing “Midnight Special” to Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”

Midnight Special” owes a great debt to widely recognized commercial filmmaking styles of the 1980s – chiefly, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Nichols makes no secret of his artistic touchstones for the film, even ribbing before the SXSW premiere screening that the poster “shamelessly rips off Spielberg.”

The film has many thrilling and breathtaking moments that deserve recognition as creations of Nichols’ and his creative team in their own right. Several crew members stuck with him through many projects for the past decade, which saw the director make the leap from $250,000 indies to $20 million studio fare. In his fairly unsubtle homages to films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which was released in 1978, to be fair), “E.T.” and “Starman,” Nichols grants them a kind of aesthetic supremacy in his yearning for the paradise lost of this post-New Hollywood era.

This very specific window of studio filmmaking, after the “Movie Brats” took power but before the dawn of nonstop CGI interference, found a satisfying balance between artistic integrity and audience satisfaction. Nichols employs his post-“Mud” goodwill to attempt a return to such a happy median, injecting the American indie sensibility into Spielbergian conventions of storytelling and presentation. He favors suspense over scares and restraint over excess, in everything from Adam Stone’s measured cinematography to David Wingo’s affecting score.

These interventions revise – and perhaps even formalistically improve upon – the foundations of ‘80s commercial cinema. But the vague plot and characterization, along with the more complex tonalities, are to “Midnight Special” what the non-animatronic monster was to J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” That is to say, these aspects appropriated from modern filmmaking belie the original films being referenced and just throw into stark relief how the new creations are not like their forbearers.

Midnight Special

Nichols might take the audience on a ride that hits familiar beats and evokes recognizable moods, but “Midnight Special” is missing a foundation in the pathos and humanity in which Spielberg and Carpenter firmly rooted their iconic films. In a post-premiere Q&A, he described the origins of the film as thinking about two guys in a car getting chased and where the story could go from there. In other words, genre dictated the story of “Midnight Special”, where the inverse feels true for a film like “E.T.”

The project further developed, Nichols said, as he thought about parents trying to understand children and their needs. It’s hard to deny the deep emotional bond between Michael Shannon’s Roy and his supernaturally empowered young son, Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton. But when it comes time to elicit awe in the film’s visually dazzling finale, the shifted point of view makes a big difference.

The films of Steven Spielberg magnify a viewer’s wonder at the screen by encouraging identification with a childlike character. Critics of his style often accuse him of similarly infantilizing his audience by telling them how to feel with sweeping cinematography and, of course, a swelling John Williams score. Nichols’ adult perspective undermines such a grand finale by placing its wonders with the realm of the cerebral and the conceptual. “Midnight Special” favors the intellectual over the emotional, the thought over the feeling. This does not necessarily make the film categorically better or worse. It just feels odd for him to summon the memory of the decade’s great films only to contradict their power. B / 2halfstars

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