Alton Meyer (Jaeden Liberher) is an 8-year-old MacGuffin; a child built of lens flares and 80s nostalgia whose entire job is to be protected by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon). Roy and his ex-wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, doing what she can with a nothing role) had been part of some religious cult where the leader adopted his follower’s children, or maybe just Alton, and used Alton’s special abilities to channel satellite signals to deliver sermons, which somehow got into the hands of the government agencies who are now thinking Alton is…whatever. Now, Roy, Alton, and Roy’s best friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are on the run from both the government and the religious cult to do…whatever.
In 2011, J.J. Abrams openly aped Steven Spielberg with Super 8. With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols is aping J.J. Abrams aping Steven Spielberg. Alton is a walking mystery box whose exact purpose is unknown even to himself. To the cult leader, Alton is a prophet. To the government, he’s a weapon. To his parents, he’s their son. To the audience, he’s the MacGuffin holding our interest. His actual purpose is as a metaphor for a child growing up all too fast over the course of a film. The literal reality of Alton is a mere, underdeveloped, distraction to Nichols’ actual interest in Roy.
Of all the characters in Midnight Special, Roy is the only character who gets developed beyond his plot line. Roy is a dedicated father who has old friends (Lucas), has made mistakes (knocking up Sarah; joining a cult), and now is spending his time protecting his son while figuring out exactly the kind of purpose his son is. Nichols, who became a father while developing the film, made a film that’s all about his own parental anxieties struggling against the elements of the world that want to take possession of his son. Religion wants to own our children, the government wants to own our children, and it’s Roy’s job as a father to make sure that Alton develops into his destiny unharmed.
Though every element of the story adds into the greater metaphor of fatherhood, not every element actually matters to the literal plot. Midnight Special is deeper meaning in search of a plot. Much like J.J. Abrams (and unlike Spielberg), Nichols embraces the idea that mystery and atmosphere are stand-ins for literal development. Over the course of 2 hours, very little of any consequence actually happens. It’s a road movie with only a handful of meaningful stops. It’s a character study whose whole arc is just figuring out his role in life. It’s a science fiction movie whose science is ignored. It’s a movie about a kid with powers that seem to change from scenario to scenario. Even the ending serves the metaphor in a deeper meaning while managing to absolutely desecrate any attempt to defend the literal.
Nichols has an amazing array of building blocks with Midnight Special: an all-white cast of accomplished actors, a fun concept, stunning visuals, a good editor, and an effective score. And, yet, he misses the mark. Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah could have been replaced with a lamp for all the development that goes into her role. Any attempt to plumb Midnight Special for depth beyond the paternal metaphor comes up short. And, the finale is just so…underwhelming in every aspect. In the realm of great self-metaphors, Midnight Special is in search of something greater than itself and still manages to miss the point.
Spoiler Space: Because Midnight Special is so dependent on its Mystery Box storytelling, the finale must have its own page.