Blu-ray Review: Midnight Special

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Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special (available on Blu-ray June 21 via Warner Bros. Home Entertainment) emerged in early 2016 as something of a critics' darling. Michael Shannon stars as Roy, father of eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The boy has supernatural powers, albeit powers that are ill-defined and of questionable value. He shoots blue beams of light from his eyes, sort of like an even younger version of Cyclops than we see in X-Men Apocalypse. He even has to wear a "visor" of sorts (actually googles). People can look into his eyes, which apparently produces a calming euphoria for the individual (even as environmental damage occurs in the immediate vicinity of the eye-locking).

A religious cult sprung up around Alton during his young life. Its members see him as some sort of deity. But the FBI has caught wind of the "special" boy and they're after him. But Alton's no god on Earth, he just wants to go home. Remember in E.T. when FBI agents are in hot pursuit of the ailing alien? Midnight Special is kind of like that—the third-act climax of E.T. isolated and stretched out to feature length. Except that it all unfolds without the endearing heart of Spielberg's heart-wrenching classic. Kudos to anyone who can muster even an inkling of sympathy or concern for the plight of Roy, Alton, or Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst).

In fact, so utterly devoid of storytelling skill is Midnight Special that it lands with the thud of an over-sized paperweight. It just sits there, basking in its own heavy portentousness. Take away the admittedly impressive visual style and excellent cast (which also includes Joel Edgerton as Roy's state trooper ally and Adam Driver as a sympathetic FBI agent) and what's left? Basically uninspired grade-Z schlock. It's a chase movie that winds up being a shaggy dog story, more or less. In fact, we'll delve into spoilers just a little bit (after a recap of the special features).

First of all some good news: there's nothing but positive notes regarding Warner's Blu-ray. It offers a near-flawless 1080p transfer of Adam Stone's moody, dark cinematography. There's also a sterling DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that is generally subtle, but knows when to hit hard (a meteor-like shower in the middle of the night is one such example of effective sonic extravagance).

If ever a movie might've benefited from a director's commentary, it's this one. But alas, no such luck. Instead we get a series of five extremely light character "Origins" featurettes (totalling just ten minutes) and an EPK making-of called "The Unseen World." In other words, if you're interested in learning more about writer-director Nichols' intentions, you're outta luck.
Midnight Special BD (299x380).jpg So, here's your spoiler alert—in conclusion I want to look just a bit closer at the film's finale and why it sucks so bad. The movie's first two-thirds feel like a big tease—an extended promise that, yes, Midnight Special is actually heading somewhere interesting. Otherwise, why bother setting up all the intrigue involving the religious cult, Alton's mysterious abilities and origins, and the fervor with which Roy is trying to evade the Feds? In the end, Alton phones home, a giant CG (cut-rate CG, at that) city materializes, and then he disappears with a few other aliens. Why, exactly, did Nichols and company expect anyone to care about his fate? The actors all struggle mightily to establish their characters, but Nichols did each of them a disservice by not writing anything for them to play.

In the end, Midnight Special is a testament to director Jeff Nichols' apparent love for movies like Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters and John Carpenter's Starman. Beyond that, there's almost nothing going on.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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