Leaving a screening for Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special on Wednesday night, my immediate thought was, “I’ve seen something like this before, but where?”
It took some mulling over, a couple of glances at the reviews—mostly positive ones that poured out of Berlin, where the sci-fi flick premiered early last month—for me to realize, “Oh, this is just like a Spielberg movie. Definitely not like Lincoln, but one from awhile back.”
Midnight Special, which premieres tonight at SXSW, follows a child with mysterious and potentially cataclysmic powers, and his father, who attempts to keep him away from the various individuals and organizations that consider him to be everything from a prophet to a national security threat. It’s Nichols’ most genre-y film, but it’s also the one that made me wonder if we’re just beginning to witness the birth of a new Steven Spielberg—at least the Spielberg who brought teenage cinephiles (in swarms) to theaters in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Last year Spielberg made some audacious comments about the state of the movie industry, focusing his criticism on superhero movies. He reasserted these feelings when promoting his Oscar-nominated Bridge of Spies. "We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” he told AP. “It doesn't mean there won't be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns.” Midnight Special may not be a deliberate response to his exhaustion, but Nichols is not someone who will likely make these kinds of films that are propping up and entering production every other minute.
With only four films under his belt, Nichols has already established himself as one of our greatest working talents, an auteur who, like Spielberg, is able to bounce seamlessly between tones and themes—whether its adolescence in his thoughtful coming-of-age film Mud or the environment and mental illness in his masterful psychological/disaster thriller Take Shelter (one of the best films from the 2000s, in my opinion). Midnight Special, however, is a different animal all together, a low key sci-fi flick with low key performances, an uncomplicated premise, and an unspectacular budget of $18 million.
That’s probably the point. Midnight Special is pretty unspectacular by today’s standards because it’s a movie operating under different standards, from another space and time. It’s not a sequel, prequel, or massive adaptation. It’s not loud and loaded with CGI. It doesn’t screen in 3D or IMAX. It doesn’t even have preachy statements to say about our present. It’s an original, contained idea—from Nichols’ own script—small in its scope, and has more in common with early Spielberg entries like E.T. or a Close Encounters of the Third Kind than anything from this century. It’s also why its appeal eluded me, at least at first.
But that doesn’t mean Nichols hasn't had the chance to dive into the Marvel/DC chaos. In the midst of the Sony leaks scandal, it was revealed that Nichols was a contender to spearhead the Aquaman film. But in an interview with ScreenCrush, he revealed why he wasn’t interested in tackling something big like that:
But, you know [sighs] the trick with Midnight Special is even though it was made at the studio, they gave me a lot of control over the process. And I don’t just mean control over final cut, but it felt like we were making one of my movies. I had my team. I had my family there. My crew. We made the movie we all wanted to make. With the DC universe, so many parts of it had been activated and so many decisions had already been made that it felt more and more—and Warner Bros. agreed—that it was me trying to jump on a moving train. That’s not so much what I’m good at. I’m more of a ground up kinda guy.”
This ground up sentiment is perhaps the best way to describe Midnight Special. It begins with two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, who’s leading Nichols’ next project Loving), who have kidnapped a gifted boy (Jaeden Lieberher) from a commune only known as “The Ranch” in order to bring him to a location where something big and important—unclear to the two men and the audience—will happen. They face opposition from the U.S. government, who have more sinister intentions for the powerful boy. That's basically it.
Despite Spielberg’s view on the state of film today, exiting the theater after watching Midnight Special, it’s easy to see why one would feel slightly underwhelmed by the film. But that’s just a surface reading; Nichols is too intelligent of a filmmaker to make something empty. Instead, you have to look at it through a different lens, to travel back in time, take on the form of a moviegoer from the late '70s and early '80s, and become a giant fan of vintage Spielberg, of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and of John Carpenter—whose influence on Midnight Special is the most overt, evident when looking at a scene from the last half of Midnight Special where we see a soldier in camouflage garb with a name tag printed over his uniform. It reads “Carpenter,” a clear nod to the cult director, whose Starman—as an example—follows an alien (Jeff Bridges) who crash lands on Earth and begins to make a home for himself.
I’ve since decided to see Midnight Special as an ode to a genre that has since been transformed. It’s a rare film working outside of Hollywood, which is maybe why it isn’t immediately appealing and just plain uncomfortable. Sure, it’s electronic drone of a score is great, the camera work strong (look out for an early night time sequence of buses that follow each other one by one down a mountain) and the cast is all around impressive. But it’s missing an epic quality we’ve grown to expect in our movies. In a way that made my initial reaction one of disappointment. I expected a rich, explosive sci-fi drama, but Midnight Special has none of these aspirations.
Instead, it’s more grounded, with an emotional core that’s rare in the quick turnovers that have become expected in today’s landscape. Midnight Special is a singular vision, a nostalgic and meticulously crafted effort that would probably give Spielberg hope about the future of genre-filmmaking in general. It’s unfortunate that it’s being released in March rather the over the summer or on a holiday—dates that blockbusters usually occupy—but at least Nichols was able to create the film he wanted to create.
Whether or not Nichols and his films have the long term potential to the fight against the wave of big budget, blockbuster films we are seeing today, at least on a personal level he’s a filmmaker who has been given and then rejected the opportunity to work in Hollywood so he can continue to make movies that are more personal, nuanced, and intelligent in ways something as calculated and artificial as the 15th Spider-Man reboot can never be. Nichols could really be Spielberg’s saving grace, and his work may be the first sign of superhero movies going “the way of the Western.”
To read more of Complex's coverage of SXSW 2016, click here.