When John Carpenter’s The Thing flopped at cinemas, Universal booted him off an adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter, about a father and his pyrotechnic daughter on the run from government types desiring to harness the child’s gift/curse.
Now, 34 years on, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) at last allows us to see, pretty much, how that film might have turned out – Midnight Special taps into the Carpenter mood (Starman is a key influence) as a father and his mysterious son flee US agents.
Plot-wise, there’s not much more to it, with Nichols drip-feeding only the barest of information. Just why eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is the subject of an NSA boyhunt headed up by Sevier (Adam Driver, as compelling here as he was as Kylo Ren) is not initially clear, though our curiosity is piqued by the dark goggles strapped over his eyes and the need to travel only at night.
Dad Roy (Michael Shannon) is aided on the road by Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), whose connections to the action will also emerge with time, while another threat to Alton arrives in the form of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shephard), the leader of a religious sect.
Here, mood is all. Nichols might wholly embrace the paranormal that he before flirted with in Take Shelter, but Midnight Special is his most grounded film to date. Reality and mundanity are built from the ground up: dusky, dust-bowl landscapes; sober performances; utilitarian motels used as safe houses; a few ominous piano keys by way of score; and an economic camera style that needs only a slow pan or a shift of focus to rustle up an excitement that Michael Bay could only dream of.
Which isn’t to say that shit don’t get crazy. The set-pieces, when they erupt, are spectacular (and that applies as much to a common fistfight as some otherworldly phenomena outside a gas station), and the climactic revelation, though reliant on conspicuous CGI, is a conceptual treat.
Whether Midnight Special adds up to anything beyond a supremely well-crafted piece of genre filmmaking is questionable, though it does recognise the human need for hope, love and meaning. But taken as a throwback to the thrillers of Carpenter and Spielberg’s cinema of wonder, it is special indeed. Not least because it honours its influences and yet remains, first and foremost, a Jeff Nichols film.