Midnight Special

Apr 12, 2016

One of the best science fiction films  in years.

Midnight Special

Image courtesy of IMDb.

Grade: A-

Director: Jeff Nichols (Mud)

Screenplay: Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Joel Edgerton (The Gift)

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 1 hr 52 min

by John DeSando

If I tell you Midnight Special is derivative and formulaic sci-fi, please understand this film is of the highest quality, an allegorical mash-up of ET, Close Encounters, X Files, Tomorrowland, The Sixth Sense, and the Christ motif, to name a few. It’s a retro take on the late 70’s and early ‘80’s when intelligent, humanistic sci-fi was the order of the day.

Midnight Special (an allusion to Lead belly’s 1934 ballad about a train’s light shining into a prison and bringing hope—a motif of this film) works dramatically and believably like few other sci-fi’s, or for that matter, the road movie and car chase.

Roy’s (Michael Shannon) birth son, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), is some kind of unearthly kid with powers that mainly affect the electric grid and blow up things. Fortunately, this is something that happens infrequently. His abduction is by his father and a state trooper, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), from a cult farm run in an ingratiatingly Jim-Jones way by charismatic Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). He had adopted Alton, and the story slowly reveals a meeting the boy must attend that has portentous implications but no certainty.

That distributed exposition is a strength of this film, relying as it does on the audience to supply the imaginative answers to plot points that don’t always add up. For instance, why did Roy and then wife, Sarah, give Alton up to adoption? In some cases, fuzzy answers are not necessary because the allegorical elements, and there are many, need interpretation, not logic.

Slow revelation fits this film: You don’t know all right away, and that’s okay because a kidnapping with the FBI following close on the heels of the kidnappers makes for thriller excitement  without even touching the sci-fi component. Yet, non-sci-fi junkies will grouse about the highly-imaginative but Spielbergian-Tomorrowland-like literalness of the ending and the lack of back story for many elements.  Soon, however, the film’s allegories kick in and all is well.

Is Alton the savior Calvin’s flock believes he is or an alien who picks up government secrets, making him a danger to the world order? The answer can be both, and with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton at the center of the action, it’s believable and fun, a classic sci-fi of intelligence and humanity.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at