Moments of true wonder are in short supply, especially in our fast-paced, media-saturated culture. Occasionally cinema provides an opportunity to experience this sensation; to slow down, embrace a great story, and find ourselves rewarded with feelings of childlike awe. Films like this don't come around too often, though. Enter Midnight Special.
Eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is an extraordinary child. No-one understands the supernatural powers he seems to possess – least of all him – but they make him extremely valuable to the religious cult that he's grown up in, and of pertinent interest to the Government. While both of these forces are urgently trying to recover him however, neither are as desperate as his father Roy (Michael Shannon), who has broken him out of the cult and is now heading to an unknown location along with childhood friend and State Trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton).
The cult, led by Brother Calvin (Sam Shephard's painfully on-the-nose take-off of Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart), dispatch two men to pick up the trail of Alton and his father, who quickly pick up mum (Kirsten Dunst) along the way. And the FBI begin closing the net too, enlisting the help of NSA analyst Paul Sevier (played by Adam 'Kylo Ren' Driver) to try to second guess Alton, in whose strange 'prophecies' he has begun to find an incredible scientific pattern (the cult has begun to use the same patterns as its religious text; science and faith both trying and failing to fully explain the same phenomena).
The ensuing road trip encases a slowly-unravelling mystery; a puzzle which takes its time to fully take shape as the nature of Alton's powers, and the destination to which it's all heading, is eventually revealed. The twisting plot is frequently thrilling, and while it forces the viewer to think and concentrate throughout, thanks to a tight script the film manages not to frustrate. The final, awe-striking scenes evoke the best moments of early Steven Spielberg movies; rewarding the journey for the characters and the audience alike.
Perhaps even more fascinating than the thrilling central plot however, is the beautifully-observed relationship between father and son. Shannon's emotionally-charged performance as a father who will stop at nothing to protect his son and enable him to reach his potential is tear-jerkingly relatable, and watching him repeatedly risk everything for him is a soul-stirring experience. What does it mean to love your child totally and unconditionally, the film asks? Roy provides a naturally incomplete yet compelling answer which at times echoes the Father nature of God himself.
A very different example of fatherhood comes in the shape of Brother Calvin, the unpleasant cult leader who seems to be preparing for his own David Koresh moment, and who co-opted Alton as his own before Roy's rescue. The cult provides a salutary reminder of how weird and dangerous religious institutions can become when they cease to be about grace and love, and focus inwardly on creating some kind of heaven-bound elect. More than that: how 'church' leaders with too much power and an unquestioning congregation both unseat God and replace him with a far inferior authority. That's probably not just a warning to be heeded by cults.
It's perhaps the highest compliment one can bestow on Director Jeff Nichols' modestly-budgeted film, but Midnight Special is truly Spielberg-esque; soulful sci-fi which recognises the smallness of our everyday world and yet yearns for something transcendent and extraordinary. I adored it, and I recommend it in the highest terms to fans not just of big-idea sci-fi, but of great, emotive storytelling.