Jeff Nichols’ new film, Midnight Special, is a slow-burner sci-fi film about an alien on Earth, but the film focuses more on ordinary humans than on spaceships or epic battles. It opens in mid-story, in a motel room, where three people prepare to take flight. There’s Roy (Michael Shannon), another man (Joel Edgerton) and Roy’s young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton has special powers (his eyes glow and he is telekinetic), and we learn that he is being sought by the government, a religious cult, the cops and his mother (Kirsten Dunst).
The film is tense from the get-go, but the extraordinary material is handled in a small-scale manner; much of the drama concerns how the variously unsettled adults deal with Alton. Nichols, who made 2011’s weather-freakout Take Shelter, sets his tale in low-rent, generic locations in Texas and Louisiana (gas stations, motels, working-class homes). He saves his cash for a whiz-bang sequence at the end that is weirdly cool.
Though this is not a work that answers all its questions — nor does it mean to — the open-ended ending does leave room for a sense of satisfying wonderment on the part of the viewer. Nichols is clearly offering homage to such classic humanistic sci-fi works as Close Encounters and E.T. But Midnight also reminded me of the current HBO curio The Leftovers, in which the why of the supernatural mystery matters less than how folks muddle through it.