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Midnight Special

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // June 21, 2016
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 21, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Jeff Nichols' sparse but potent body work has largely flown under the radar over the past decade, even though he's crafted these absorbing dramas powered by thematic ambiguity and tormented main characters, always with the stern, piercing features of Michael Shannon somewhere within. His work ends up having such an impact because he distills a lot of emotional and moral complexity within the scenarios he's written, which give his indie projects a kind of dramatic grandeur that stretches well beyond their budgetary means. Thus, those who have followed Nichols' work over the years were justified in getting excited for Midnight Special, in which the writer/director would point his energy toward a small-scale story about hiding a young boy with extraordinary, almost magical powers ... kinda like a superhero. Sadly, while Nichols' situational intimacy and gorgeous composition remain in this suitable science-fiction effort, a dose of uninspired, overly recognizable storytelling keeps it from reaching the same heights as his previous work.

Midnight Special drops us immediately into the pursuit for young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who's holed up in a ramshackle hotel with his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and their traveling companion, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Ever monitoring the TV for updates on how much information the authorities have on them, they once again flee into the night after another escalation in the information released about them, desperate to keep the young boy safe. The reason? Alton has specific supernatural capabilities, ranging from tapping into hidden communications arrays to expelling energy beams from his eyes, not entirely unlike Cyclops from X-Men. While the government poses a threat to his safety, wanting to locate him for assumed reasons, they're also fleeing from a religious cult-like group -- led by Sam Shepard's Calvin Meyer -- who believe him to be the key to the fruition of their rapturous belief structure. As a result, Roy and Lucas are forced to do anything possible, crossing boundaries, to get Alton to a specific destination before time's run out.

Midnight Special does get its hook in early with a crafty slow feed of details about the capabilities of the young boy, generating a compelling mystery that unravels in big, bold ways between the stretches of restrained exposition. Jeff Nichols' interest in ambiguity emerges in how he avoids direct explanations of what exactly Alton's powers are and what, precisely, all the information collected about the young boy -- both by the government and by the Mormon-esque quote who reveres him -- actually entails. Coupled with the character-driven focus established by Nichols, the film takes on a tone that's unmistakably inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg, a fusion of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with how it snaps pieces of the puzzle together underneath an emotional momentum, with Star Trek: The Force Awakens' Adam Driver filling the role of the Richard Dreyfuss-type of expert as an NSA specialist. As Alton's eyes begin glowing and dumps of numerical data create an odd maze for Midnight Special to navigate, it's hard not to get intrigued with seeing what's at the end.

Much like his previous films, writer/director Nichols brings beautifully-shot, quaint rusticity and invigorated performances to Midnight Special, driven by Michael Shannon's hardened yet sympathetic protectiveness as the boy's father and Joel Edgerton's compromised perspective as a longtime friend. Nichols is also working with a premise that doesn't communicate as effortlessly with subtle, personal dramatics, and that shows once the film drags in the middle amid the protracted pursuits for Alton and the gradual connecting of the dots about the boy's purpose. Largely stoic underneath his blue goggles and orange headphones, Alton becomes more of a device for the plot's forward movement than a captivating character, whose bizarre verbal outbursts and dangerous energy projections rob the other characters of the kind of attention they'd need for actual depth. Familiar faces from Anton's past emerge in the roadtrip, including his mother, played by Kirsten Dunst, but these interactions seem more like interruptive stalling of a dramatic reveal than adding emotional depth to his escape from pursuers.

Jeff Nichols' craftsmanship around the boy's escalating powers and inherent link to this cult becomes a source of wonder and amusement in Midnight Special, but that doesn't make up for the lack of thematic edge that traditionally commands the director's work, and it's not from an absence of potential. Ideas about religious belief, intercepted government telecommunications, and the morality behind protecting an individual like Alton at all cost present themselves in Nichols' script, but they're only developed to a superficial level, perhaps deliberately so in order to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. That vagueness rings hollow, though, especially once all the pieces of data about Alton begin to snap together in the dramatic conclusion, amplifying the extent of his other-worldly capabilities as the rest of the characters bask in its amazement. Everything comes together in suspenseful fashion, but the boy himself possesses so much gravitational pull that the rest of the story's moving parts -- notably the other characters -- fade into the background. It's alien territory for Nichols, and his latest lacks that special something for it.

Video and Audio:

Mightnight Special descends onto Blu-ray from Warner Bros. in a handsome 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer of the film's down-to-earth mixture of daytime and nighttime shots throughout the pedestrian nooks and crannies of the American landscape. Shots in dimly-lit hotel rooms and houses offer a phenomenal grasp on the subtle glow of lamps upon the actor's facial features, never drowning out details with overly dark black levels. Exterior nighttime shots endure a bit of black crush in spots, especially in the cabin of a car, but it's not overly obtrusive. Scenes hit with daytime light draw out warm, convincing flesh tones and finely-saturated color balance, while interior shots in schools and government buildings allow plenty of fine details in clothing, facial hair, and other elements to come about. It's not a flashy transfer, exhibitinga bit of dimness and noise at times, but it certainly captures the feel that Nichols strives for in his films, and it relishes the sparse digital effects -- notably Alton's eye radiance -- wherever necessary.

The DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn't possess a consistent rush of noteworthy moments, but it comes through whenever there's a gunshot, a crashed car, or an energy pulse that needs emphasis. A fine degree of separation hallmarks the front end of the surround stage, scattering firmer audio effects across the two front channels with brilliant clarity and balance, maintaining an even keel with the emotive music throughout. There are a few moments of overzealous bass response early on, overpowering certain other effects with impact, but later scenes with strong contact and consistent lower-end resonance are evenly handled. The energy of Alton's eye projectiles and the buzzing of sonic interference spread capably throughout all the surround channels, never exhibiting any distortion, while the dialogue remains articulate and natural without really standing out as anything remarkable. English, French, Spanish, and Potuguese spoken languages and subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Warner Bros. have only provided a pretty light handful of extras for Jeff Nichols' latest film, starting off with a series of character vignettes, Origins (12:36, 16x9 HD) that tracks through some of the implicit elements of each of the featured characters with writer/director Jeff Nichols offering his insights through interviews. They're followed up by The Unseen World (5:12, 16x9 HD), where Nichols discusses his creative motivations for making the film and the rest of the cast/crew offer some general insights on the narrative's mystery. Altogether, we're looking at less than twenty (20) minutes of material.

Final Thoughts:

Midnight Special finds writer-director Jeff Nichols branching out from his catalog of poignant, personal stories and into the realm of science-fiction, and the shift proves to be a little more than his immense talents can realize. While his story of a supernaturally-gifted young boy and his father on the run -- from both the government and religious zealots alike -- taps into some of the same kind of intimate drama and pensive ambiguity of his previous works, there's too much left vague and not enough original thought present in his indie mystery. There's beauty, strong performance value, and some poeticism in Nichols' slow-reveal of the secrets lying underneath young Alton's special powers, but they don't quite gel into the cohesive and meaningful tale they almost became. WB's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, though a few more extras would've certainly been welcome. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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