This low-key thriller was a welcome surprise after a line of underwhelming indie sci-fi movies reviewed here on Prescientscifi.com. Midnight Special manages to generate suspense with only a few special effects and action sequences, all of which are done very well. At the same time, it is a different species of movie than the theatrical release titles that have been coming out of Hollywood over the years.
The movie begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) getting ready to leave a cheap motel room with the young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton reads comic books under a sheet while wearing swimming goggles, which to some parents may not be that weird. What was really weird was the cardboard and duct tape covering the windows to keep the room dark. They leave at sunset and drive all night trying to avoid sunlight and law enforcement. Chasing them are the FBI and a fundamentalist religious cult who believe Alton is the savior of mankind, perhaps the second coming. Early on, you see Alton has some sort of special power along with an aversion to light. They have a destination, coordinates provided by Alton, only they have no idea what they’ll find when they get there.
Midnight Special does not rely on special effects, witty dialogue, or over-the-top characters to keep you captivated. Most of the characters do not talk much but manage to convey what is necessary to keep the audience informed. Shannon and Edgerton do a tremendous job doing more with less. Kirsten Dunst is compelling in a smaller role as Alton’s mother. Adam Driver was disappointing in that he really didn’t do or say much as the NSA analyst. It was also a little disappointing that Sam Shepard’s character was only in three short scenes. Hardly seems fair to put his name up on the poster as if he plays a significant role.
Alton’s power is beyond scientific explanation but isn’t your typical mutant superpower or magic. You get the sense that it is not supernatural or magic, but lies beyond our knowledge, as if he is from the future (not to say that he is, the movie never reveals the answer). When he evolves to understand his power and his identity, things get exciting, bringing you to an amazing ending. It is a little of a surprise, and some traditional movie-goers will not like its ambiguity. The movie does not explain but rather shows viewers something, leaving them to interpret it on their own, akin to Close Encounters and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There were a couple scenes where the silence or limited dialogue was frustrating. Although it’s quiet, efficient narrative style is part of its appeal, there were exchanges that could’ve used a line or two more. Adam Driver’s character, as an NSA analyst, offers very little to the plot until the very end. He seems to know something about Alton but absolutely never says it.
In terms of the ending, it leaves some profound metaphysical questions that we can’t analyze without spoiling the movie so…
The glimpse of the “other world” on top of ours gives us some hint of a post-corporeal existence where we become pure energy or perhaps phase into a different dimension. There are vast physical structures that appear to be post-modernist style buildings hanging high above the ground. Although vast in scale they are sparsely distributed, which made one think they are advanced beings but are not numerous. Some of the structures look more like sculptures than functional buildings. There doesn’t seem to be a symmetry or planned lay out to them either. It strongly suggest to me that these beings of the other world do not have to deal with scarcity and thus no limitation to how they build. They are far more advanced than us, which suggests they are either from the future, are an alien species, or something akin to angels.
They are visible only for a moment, the time needed for Alton to transform from a corporeal boy into a being of light. Once completed, he and the vast floating civilization vanishes. It seems it exists in a different dimension, which would explain why aircraft don’t slam into these superstructures hanging just above us. Alton’s incredible abilities suggest they may have some biological connection to us, perhaps we are their ancestors and they are what we will become. Perhaps they are angels, created by the same God but a distinct race of beings watch us from above. Alton explicitly states he is no savior and has no connection to the religious cult. In one scene, he is quick to dismiss the religious implications of his existence, as if to say he is not an angel. Only, he never states he is not a higher being of the same Creator. There is no talk of God. Alton’s only interest is in returning to his kind, not helping humanity. There is a familial connection between him and his parents but it does diminish as he sees his dimension and enters it.
So many questions unanswered! So much room for interpretation! Movies like Midnight Special are fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Overall, it gets high grades from us and a big recommendation for those who love mystery and thought-provoking endings. If you like the more traditional sci-fi with plenty of exposition and a satisfying happy ending, you will not get it here.