Suspenseful sci-fi drama 'Midnight Special' is just a tad too ambiguous for its own good

Posted April 10, 2016

"MIDNIGHT SPECIAL" — 3 stars — Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver; PG-13 (some violence and action)

“Midnight Special” is good enough to make you cheer for it, but it stumbles when it comes time to take the winning shot. It features strong performances, a suspenseful tone and just enough ambiguity to get it in trouble.

The story boils down to an 8-year-old boy and his father who are on the run from a religious cult. We first meet Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and their friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in a lonely motel room. A TV reporter is announcing an Amber Alert for Alton, and the report connects him to Roy, even though the media doesn’t know they are father and son.

Alton and Roy are on their way to a secret location that may have something to do with the end of the world. Their former leader Calvin (Sam Shepherd) is putting together a manhunt for Alton, who he considers his adopted son and the key to his flock’s salvation. Alton is a kind of oracle, able to receive what Calvin’s followers interpret as divine guidance through a connection to the airwaves.

The oracle may be revered, but Alton’s life has been anything but easy. Even as a young child, he demonstrated a high sensitivity to sunlight (he’s never seen a sunrise), and his condition leads Calvin’s entire congregation to shift onto a nocturnal schedule. While Alton is on the run, Roy and Lucas have to continually tape cardboard onto the motel windows to keep any errant sunlight away.

To the FBI, Alton’s divine guidance is really secret government transmissions. Led by an NSA operative named Sevier (Adam Driver), the feds get in on the chase. They know Alton is receiving coordinates, but they haven’t been able to figure out where he and his father are headed.

In order to complete their journey, Alton and Co. have to make contact with a couple of ex-cult members, including Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Essentially, “Midnight Special” is a blend of “Starman” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that speculates on a special kind of set up: What if one of those UFO cults was really onto something?

It’s a fascinating premise director Jeff Nichols builds out with skillful suspense and a compelling tone. One piece at a time, moviegoers learn about Alton’s otherworldly powers that go far beyond being a human radio antenna.

A little ambiguity and open-endedness can be a powerful asset to a science-fiction film like this, but “Midnight Special” leaves a few too many questions unanswered, and the few it does address aren’t quite as mind-blowing as the answers feel like they should be.

This is too bad, because “Midnight Special” is stacked with quality actors who deliver impressive performances. Shannon is perfect as Roy, and Driver is well cast as Sevier, even if he isn’t given as much screen time as we’d like.

But no one shines (at times literally) more than Lieberher, who emotes the same kind of charming innocence here as he did in 2014’s “St. Vincent.” Alton’s character is designed to make the audience pity him and fear him almost at the same time, and Lieberher strikes that delicate balance.

In the end, all the good qualities are just enough to leave you wishing “Midnight Special” were a little better.

"Midnight Special" is rated PG-13 for some violence and action; running time: 112 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at


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