THE FILM 4.5/5
“I belong in another world.”
A provocative, genre-defying film as supernatural as it is intimately human, a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers that even Roy himself cannot comprehend. What starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the highest levels of the Federal Government. Risking everything, Roy is committed to helping Alton reach his ultimate purpose, whatever that might be and whatever it costs, in a story that takes audiences on a perilous journey from Texas to the Florida coast, while exploring the bonds of love and trust, and the nature of faith.
Homaging John Carpenter in film is pretty big right now. It Follows, The Guest, Last Shift, and Cold in July—all warmly received—were made by filmmakers who grew up watching the master of terror’s output, and whose minds were beautifully infected by Carpenter’s siege-like settings, striking images, moody musical compositions, gliding camera work, and keenly aware sense of fun. In the same way Carpenter was inspired by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, he has successfully transitioned from protégé to mentor. Though so far many of these homages—if not all—have landed squarely in the horror genre, leave it to celebrated director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter; Mud) to create his own Carpenter homage while still maintaining his own identity. Lots of filmmakers are re-examining the suburban terrors of Halloween, the pulpy grindhouse western battlegrounds of Escape from New York, or the siege-like fights of a few against many a la Assault on Precinct 13. But with Midnight Special, Nichols is more interested in reexamining the love for the wondrous and magical ’80s films he grew up watching—chief among them Carpenter’s Starman, perhaps the most underrated of the director’s career. At the earliest beginnings of the project, Nichols stated that he wanted to make a John Carpenter-inspired “chase film,” and he’s done exactly that–and more.
Midnight Special’s greatest strength is its script, which provides details on what’s going on only as they’re needed. Everything the audience requires to follow the narrative is provided to them, but not in typical ways. There are no characters to shamelessly provide exposition, and there are no on-screen text crawls that catch the audience up on who’s who, what’s what, and why everyone is after Alton Meyer. The film peels back layer by layer of its mystery as it plays on, revealing an extremely touching family drama that exists alongside the more thrill-based chase film that one might be expecting. The viewer is dropped into the conflict as the plot is already well underway with no moments of recollection. There are no flashbacks, not even brief mentions. As harried and dangerous as the chase is, you—the audience—are along for the ride. You are riding shotgun with Roy (frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon), dedicated father to Alton Meyer (a phenomenally old-souled Jaeden Lieberher), the most wanted human being (?) in the world. By your side are Lucas (Joel Edgerton), faithful friend, and finally, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Alton’s mother. This newly formed family unit will be your own as the chase ensues. You rest when they rest, you run when they run. You are never aware of any danger until they walk around the corner and come face to face with it. Pursuing them (or is he?) is Adam Driver’s Peter Sevier of the NSA, a post-millennium take on Charles Martin Smith’s Dr. Sharmin from Starman—another man caught in the middle between the government, and something astonishing and unprecedented.
But it’s the interplay between these characters, and the relationships that are either fully established or which begin to establish as the film plays out, that give Midnight Special its power, emotionally, to draw in its audience. There’s no one who cannot relate to the family unit, the power of love between parents and their child, or the loyalty of a friend who will risk his life to do what’s right. We feel these things because we inherently know these things, and in the scattered moments during the film when the chaos stops and everyone can take a breath, we realize, with surprise, that there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to save all of these people if we somehow found ourselves in the same conflict–even if saving them meant saying goodbye. All of this is centered around young Lieberher’s Alton, a child actor who thankfully skirts trying to appear knowingly childlike in the way many child actors do to connive their way into a “performance.” Alton never does across a child, though he is (at least on the surface), and he honestly holds his own against his seasoned colleagues. (He’s apparently been cast as Bill Denbrough in New Line’s troubled production of Stephen King’s IT, which, if nothing else, is at least one reason to care about this newest iteration following the departure of original writer/director Cary Fukunaga.)
Heavy family stuff aside, Nichols wants to have some fun as well and he turns up the geekdom to eleven. His lead character’s surname, Meyer, is likely a nod to Carpenter’s unstoppable boogeyman, while a gruff soldier character who maintains a constant presence during the final act bears the name “Carpenter” on his Army uniform. And Nichols’ go-to composer, David Wingo, turns in a score more dependent on synthesizer than his previous compositions, sounding both Carpenter-ish in their presence but with Wingo’s normal ability for soaring melancholy.
Carpenter, being the gruff, cynical, and dry-witted curmudgeon that he is, would be quick to dismiss any suggestions that he’s inspired the next generation of filmmakers. Only when he does acknowledge it is when he sidesteps the honor intended in favor of making a joke about royalty checks memoed with “inspiration.” But except for Carpenter’s own Starman, the cult director and “master of horror” has never made anything so beautiful as Midnight Special, and even he would be awed in its presence.
THE PICTURE 4.5/5
Midnight Special’s look and design changes as it goes, beginning at night and in dark and eerie surroundings. But as the film plays on–and as our characters chase hope and freedom–the night begins to cease and the sun rolls in, leading to its bright, white-filled finale. This high definition image prefers all of that intent, while presenting a very faithful, strong, stable, and beautiful image. Fleshtones are very realistic and textures are very defined–especially at the end when you find yourself gaping at some pretty intricate architecture. Light plays a major role in the film, and at home, in a darkened room, it looks gorgeous.
THE SOUND 5/5
A story set entirely on the road allows for a mix of many different environments–bustling highways, hideaway houses, roadside motels–which offer extremely varied ambience, all of which is used to full effectiveness. Dialogue is clean, clear, and well presented. David Wingo’s score, from his silent piano to his soaring synth, sounds tremendous, and truly comes alive during the finale.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 2/5
Supplements are unfortunately a little light in support of a film this tremendous, but what is presented here is actually very useful to deepening your understanding of the conflict and what led to its events. The various “Origins” featurettes included provide background on each character that is only alluded to during the film. Like mini prequels, writer/director Jeff Nichols walks through every major character, explains who they are, and how they came to be involved in everything going on. The information is so useful that is transcends the boundary between supplements and essential viewing, as it really helps to flesh out the story. “The Unseen World” is a brief breakdown on the design of the Alton’s world, architecturally as well as thematically, and what it all means.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Featurette: Five Character Origins (12 mins)
–Featurette: The Unseen World (5 mins)
STUDIO: Warner Bros. Studios
DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
THEATRICAL DATE: March 18, 2016
VIDEO STREET DATE: June 21, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 2/40:1
AUDIO: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; English: Dolby Digital 5.1; French (Canada): Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1; Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1
SUBTITLES: English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish
RUN TIME: 111 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: Ultraviolet
As children of the ’80s continue to matriculate into filmmaking, the past is returning in expected and unexpected ways. Franchises are being resurrected, and homages are sidestepping major studios in favor of creating something very specific, very unusual, and very beloved. Midnight Special joins the growing family of the Carpenter children, but with its very unique Jeff Nichols identity. We’ve had our Halloween iterations, our various Things, and our multitude of Assaults. And now it’s time for something a little different. Though primarily known as a horror director, Carpenter exercised a light touch whenever he was afforded the rare opportunity, so for something as magical and touching as Midnight Special to not only exist for new audiences, but to also recognize and legitimize Carpenter’s ability to tell a different kind of story, is another reason to celebrate the newest homage to a living legend’s work. Light supplementary package aside, this release of Midnight Special gets an easy recommendation.
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