Sunday, 21 April 2019

Sci-fi blockbuster that’s about a boy

VISUALLY dazzling science fiction films set on Earth usually wreak havoc in capital cities, not the

VISUALLY dazzling science fiction films set on Earth usually wreak havoc in capital cities, not the rural American South, writes Damon Wise.

But Jeff Nichols’s fourth feature gives the genre an intriguing makeover by setting his tale of mystery and wonder in a wide-open land of asphalt highways, gas stations and cash-only motels where no questions are asked.

Nichols has used VFX before, in the apocalypse-themed psychological drama Take Shelter (2011). Midnight Special, though, is pure thrill ride — an adult action fantasy that begins and ends with a high-octane helter-skelter car chase.

Following a cameo in the director’s last film, Mud (2012), Nichols regular Michael Shannon stars as Roy, who we meet at the height of what appears to be a kidnap situation. Roy is on TV and the airwaves as an amber alert is issued — he is wanted for the abduction of his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).

Meanwhile, the FBI has raided the premises of a bizarre religious cult, once home to Alton and his mother (Kirsten Dunst), where its charismatic leader (Sam Shephard) is being grilled not just about the boy but also about the content of his bizarre sermons. How these two stories are connected is something to be fathomed by Adam Driver’s super-intelligent but eccentric FBI agent, assigned to the case by a government task force.

Putting together eyewitness testimony and his own detective work, this shrewd Fed builds up a picture of a child apparently imbued with superhuman powers, and whose electric outbursts of psychic energy leave a trail of destruction.

Is he a threat to national security, as Washington DC suspects? Is he some kind of saviour, as the religious brethren believe? Or is he something else entirely?

Nichols takes his time building up the suspense. Shannon’s dark, piercing eyes make Roy’s agenda hard to know — he acts more like a gangster than a desperate father, with a taciturn armed henchman (Joel Edgerton) in tow. The boy himself is almost oblivious of his situation, kept in darkness, wearing goggles, reading a comic book by torchlight. But what happens if those goggles come off?

Drawing on the legacy of Steven Spielberg — whose E.T. and Close Encounters inspired Nichols in his youth — Midnight Special also tips its hat to cult director John Carpenter with its intelligent appropriation of genre and its hypnotic, minimalist keyboard score.

But though it steps outside the boundaries of Nichols’s first three films, this is recognisably an extension rather than a departure.

This is a director who embraces the secrets of the great American landscape, this time taking us even further out into the unknown.

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