No one did “kids in danger”-style adventure movies better than – or made them look half as fun as – Steven Spielberg, especially during his early-’80s hot streak. A quick look at the films he was involved with during that period, from writing to producing to directing, reads like The Guidebook to Everyone’s Childhood: Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Poltergeist, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, Back to the Future. In fact, he was so good at putting youths in questionable and precarious situations (in films for a young audience, mind you), that an entirely new rating system – PG-13 – had to be established; parents cried foul at the amount of violence and gore these films contained, despite the fact that they were, y’know, kids movies.
After Spielberg scaled back on the kid-focused flicks in the mid-’90s to dedicate more of his time on historically accurate biopics, it seemed like J.J. Abrams would be the heir apparent to the Spielberg throne. A look at Abrams’ early filmography reads like The Guidebook to Amblin Movies. But the only effort J.J. ever gave us which felt like something Spielberg would have churned out in his prime was Super 8. Before then and since, the only movies that really ever see kids in any danger anymore are ghost movies where some family moves into a haunted house and the kid is eventually possessed. These movies may still be PG-13, but the big difference is that the situations these kids find themselves in these ghost flicks are scary; movies like E.T. or The Goonies, the danger was fun.
Enter Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, which feels entirely composed of that old-school Spielberg DNA. While not an obvious Spielberg successor, Nichols’ small filmography (just four films, including Midnight Special) have all, in their own ways, invoked the elements that made all those Spielberg flicks from the days of yore so memorable: youth in peril, family, fantasy, threat, excitement, and an interloping government – all set against the backdrop of sprawling Anywhere U.S.A. And here, of course, is that PG-13 rating.
The movie opens with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his supernatural son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), on the run from a religious cult they once belonged to. With the help of a friend, an ex-cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the trio hit the road with no concrete plan except to get as far away from the area as possible, but soon cult members – as well as members of the U.S. government – are hot on the group’s trail, and neither outcome seems too promising if they’re caught. For two solid hours the movie fires at a breakneck pace, never once easing off the gas. Between the FBI, the scientists, and the cult members, and every other thing that stands in our protagonists’ way, the movie just keeps on stacking the tension. (The movie is by no means a ‘jump scare’ film, but I jumped several times because I was so wound up watching it.)
What’s so frustrating is that, all things considered, Midnight Special should be a modern blockbuster. I mean truly, it should be huge. It’s torn from the same cloth as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But even though Spielberg created the ‘blockbuster’ – and Midnight Special is incredibly Spielbergian, make no mistake – the blockbuster of today has evolved into something completely different from what it started out as. I really liked Midnight Special and would love to see it do well, and it would – if it were 1983. Audiences today, however, need flashing lights and loud noises and plastic-looking CGI to hold their attention. They need young, attractive people spewing constant exposition. They need deus ex machina. They need clean, sterile, predictable. They don’t want to be engaged, they want the feeling of a nap in the form of a movie.
Aside from being an interesting and engaging flick, Midnight Special is packed with amazing performances, especially from young Jaeden Lieberher, who absolutely anchors the film. I don’t care how well-made a movie it is – if they had gotten some terrible kid actor, the whole thing would’ve gone out the window. The film is also gorgeously lensed with lots of golden hours photography across the highways and byways of the South. And David Wingo’s score compliments the final product; think a really understated Hans Zimmer ala Inception.
I really can’t say enough good things about Midnight Special. It’s about as flawless and enjoyable as a mid-level sci-fi thriller can be — and likely to be one of the best you’ll be able to see at the theaters these days. 30 years ago, you could see movies like this every month at the cineplex, but not so much anymore. I highly suggest going to see this movie. Who knows: if enough people pay money to see engrossing, creative, and original pictures from promising young directors, maybe we’ll get more Midnight Specials and less Batman v Supermans? I know, sounds crazy. But hey, it might work. Just a thought.