Midnight Special sings from the Amblin hymnbook with such fervour that it could almost be construed as plagiarism, rather than adoration. There’s no denying that this story of a misfit child with supernatural tendencies, simultaneously on the run from the Men in Black and desperate to answer some otherworldly call, has a lot in common with Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so forth. But the critical difference between a Spielbergian homage such as this and one more closely approximating that of Super 8 is a question of restraint. The latter, power-mad with the wonders of modern technology, puts all its money upfront in very showy scenes of destruction. Midnight Special, meanwhile, plays its cards very close to its chest, with very little in effects work for a vast opening tract of film, resembling more of a gritty thriller than a science fiction adventure. Piece by piece, and with surprising pace and patience, the mystery unfolds. The result is that, when the film finally shows its hand, it’s a moment of genuine wonder that feels both necessary and well earned.
Giving the audience time to connect with these characters and puzzle over the story for themselves makes the plot that much more compelling. In the same way, because the film doesn’t over-explain or get too scientific, it makes the ridiculous far more palatable. The score is evocative and the use of natural lighting is very dramatic, adding to the angle towards authenticity. Though there’s a decent dose of action throughout, Midnight Special is fascinatingly understated right up to the payoff. This means that much of it is carried on the shoulders of the actors, and, while many of the grown-ups are largely forgettable, Jaeden Lieberher is haunting in his performance as Alton, the child at the story’s heart, teetering between creepiness and real warmth. Likewise, Adam Driver, fresh off the Star Wars bus, demonstrates equal parts quirk and sobriety – a surprisingly likeable avatar for the audience.
The film isn’t perfect, sadly. The script often struggles to avoid sounding stilted or unnatural, and there’s certainly a healthy dollop of contrivance that’s glossed over throughout the plot. It’s also undeniably derivative, wearing its 80s influences on its sleeve. All that said, it’s an extremely strong execution that’s intriguing in its own right: not a rip-off of those earlier small-town alien stories, but a genuine, heartfelt tribute.
Midnight Special is released in cinemas nationwide on 8th April 2016.
Watch the trailer for Midnight Special here: