I watched this last night. Directed by Jeff Nichols, this is a strong echo of two of my favorite childhood movies: Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain.
But like, moodier.
The basic tension is the same, with a modern twist. A young boy with what seems like supernatural abilities is on a car race across the US. The news is reporting he’s kidnapped, but it is by his dad. They’re fleeing a cult that seems to believe the kid has some inside scoop on the end of the world. They’re well armed.
The NSA, the FBI, and a couple of well-armed dudes from the cult are all after them (plus tipsters who spot them as they run on).
There’s a lot of sense of wonder. Some core mystery (what is the kid? Where are they going. Why do they have to get there? What’s the ticking clock). The movie is built and crafted quite masterfully to match the structures of Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain (the original, the remake was a little less exciting, but with 100% more The Rock).
There was some pay off at the end, much like Close Encounters or Race. But the movie held back as much as it could, as long as it could. I read an interview with the director where one of his earlier movies did well because he refused to over explain to the audience.
That’s fine for Indy films, where critics pretty much masturbate over inconclusivity because it lets them ponder. It’s regularly annoying for mainstream audiences who often prefer the story teller have the conviction of the story they’re telling. While Nichols does have the conviction, by holding off so long the cross country chase drags on a bit and it affects the pacing of the film. That’s because it then puts a tremendous load on the two characters who hold this up on their shoulders. And the two adults (until a third joins, a woman, Kirsten Dunst, who has next to no lines or history or personality to add) have all the interaction and spark of a dead fish.
Because they’re all very moody and serious.
Over at Chuck Wendig’s site S.L. Huang pins something that might explain why I think Midnight Special doesn’t work too well: manpain.
When this trope is in effect, The Man’s pain is the one we are focused on, as readers/viewers, and meant to sympathize with. If his family is murdered, if his girlfriend is turned into a vampire — it is still his pain we are shown, his drama that is the important fallout.
There’s an even more disturbing subset of manpain that starts to set itself apart after you see it enough times. It’s the “Man Is ‘Forced’ To Make A Horrible Choice That Hurts Someone He Loves Just To Wring Angst For His Own Emotional Journey” trope.
The whole movie is about the dad, who is all serious and in serious pain about the risks he’s taking by kidnapping his kid to go on this journey to get the kid to a certain location.
Even when it looks like the kid is dying, he presses on. Because, it’s a hard choice damnit.
…like, the movie is a couple hours of these two guys making these faces. All the time.
What makes Firestarter and Race to Witch Mountain so engaging, particularly to the audience with the disposable income and ability to nag their parents into going to see it, is that the child characters are (and this is important) fully developed characters within their own rights. They react constantly to the crazy shit going down on the road trip. Not so here (even thought the kid is on the poster for crying out loud).
Here it’s 100% focused on the parent character (played by Michael Shannon) and all their feels. Which are fine, but we don’t know if the kid is scared, or even if he loves the dad, and the kid is pretty damn robotic all throughout. Even DARYL in the 1980s, movie about a family that adopts an *actual godamn robot* that looks like a kid that’s on the run from the government, even DARYL has more emotions than the kid in Midnight Special.
As a result, because of both manpain and the exclusion of the kid as a character to us (I’m sure Nichols has answers, as the movie is well crafted), at some level of depth, even despite the well crafted nature of the movies, it therefore lacks a heart it needs to level up as a movie.
It lacks joy. It lacks the full depth of emotions and full depth of characterization of all its characters.
The dark sets, the grim seriousness, the empty characterization of the characters other than the father, it becomes oppressive. Even Firestarter, a straight up horror movie, had more of a sense of joy and depth of character in it.
The movie in some ways is a masterclass in how you can still create something that is an amazing bit of craft but yet still fail to create something with heart.
I wanted to feel something at the end, when the young boy leaves all the people who risked their lives to take him on this trip. But I didn’t.
I’m not surprised that people who watch it rate it highly, but that it hasn’t taken off. Not surprising it only made half of what it cost to make.
I read an article about the directors dreams and hopes for the movie and what he was trying to learn with it. It is why I watched the movie. I was hoping to love it. But it does serve to remind us to put some heart into our projects and remember that audiences need to see more character.