Silver Screen Resolution: Midnight Special

This year, I resolved to see twelve new-to-me spec fic movies in a no-doubt vain attempt at catching up with popular culture. One movie per month, the results of watching said movie discussed at the beginning of the next month. So I made myself some rules:

  1. It must be spec-fic. For review here on Spec-Chic and for myself. I just prefer it. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Even kid’s movies if they fit one of those genres!
  2. For the most part, the movie must be popular spec-fic. Something people around me have been talking about.
  3. I have to see at least a third of them in the theater, for the truest “in the moment” connection. (This rule has since been modified, since most of the in-the-theater movies I plan to see will show up on Sound-Off rather than as a Silver Screen Resolution review.)

This month was Midnight Special.

Why I Chose It: Frankly, I didn’t, and I don’t remember who suggested it to me. There was a whole slew of titles tossed my direction at one point, and I chose from their midst firstly by what was available at the local library and then by what sounded interesting. The time between me deciding to watch this particular movie and actually watching it was sufficiently far apart that I had little to no idea of what this movie was about — a boy Firestarter kind of story? Psychic kid and father on the run from shady people? Yeah, all right, sounds okay.

Why I Didn’t Go See It Originally: I never even saw this one advertised. So I didn’t know it existed to want to see it or not.

What I Think Now That I’ve Seen It: I put the movie in, started it up, was wandering around the house, and realized, whoops missed a whole lot o’ stuff. I went back, sat down, and paid proper attention.

After the first twenty minutes, I thought man, I’m going to love this movie.

Sadly, this was not the case.

By the end of the movie, I was heckling it.

SPOILERS BELOW.


The problem is partly that it started off so well! Low-key, grounded in what felt like a clearly recognizable reality, with an interesting element — the strange, psychic (for lack of a better term) kid.

But I felt like it squandered all that great set up by becoming increasingly unmoored from reality, even while it pretended to hew close.

It wasn’t just the boy, though he was a part of it and I’ll get to Miracle Boy in a minute.

It wasn’t the utter lack of an explanation (oh hey, there’s another world full of magical people where I belong, and genetics, who cares about genetics…) about his ability or his future or where he even came from, though again, that’s part of it.

For me, the final exasperating straws were the utter lack of realism in the “gritty” bits. Two shotgun blasts — one to Lucas’s chest, one skimming Roy’s throat. And yet, it took multiple scenes before the costumer decided hey, maybe I should put some holes in Lucas’s shirt. Or the magically deflating airbags that somehow don’t disable the car after a significant crash. Just a lot of small things all building up.

But a lot of it was the vagueness of the spec fic element. I don’t have to have answers for everything; I’m really content to let magical realism just be. I’m good with inexplicable things being inexplicable. As long as the writer doesn’t half-explain, I’m good! But once they half-explain, then… the wheels can come off.

Tell me that Alton is a strange child — some genetic sport — with a vision of a strange future/place where he thinks he belongs, and eventually vanishes to, I’ll be happy.

But tell me he’s actually and always has been a member of a race of glowing people living in a world-spanning city that watches over earth and provide no further rationale, then I’m cranky as fuck.

Pretty much my expression. Sour, annoyed. Righteously pissed off.

If Alton is an alien/angel/magical watcher creature, how was he born to Roy and Sarah? Gene tampering? Just random magical in vitro? Why them? Is this the way they watch humans? Why do they watch humans? Why is an random extra-dimensional being zooming around the Earth being super powerful in every single aspect that he can be — telekinetic, sure; able to interpret satellite chatter, sure; able to start cars with a single glance, why not? Able to bring down a satellite by… looking in its direction?

Alton started to tip into so much power that I had a super hard time believing that this sort of scenario has ever played out before — the watchers infiltrating earth by means of a child. Because I think people would mention that more than once if the watcher’s return home involves a big glowing city appearing superimposed on our society.

Alton’s practice bubble to summon the other city. That’s not too noticeable, right?

So if they’ve never done it before, why now?

I ended up feeling like I was watching a stripped-down, re-imagined version of Escape to Witch Mountain, with less plot sense. Compared to Midnight Special, the plot of Witch Mountain holds together surprisingly cleanly: Two magical kids (Tony and Tia) are aliens whose ship crashed in earthly waters and got separated from their people. They must find their way back via a “star case” and a cranky old RV driver, and escape the powerful men who’d use them for his own gain.

I didn’t understand the “keep him in the dark!/No wait, he needs the sunlight to grow and thrive!” changeover. It felt arbitrary. Was this the only time that Alton was ever exposed to the dawn? It seems to be so, because he tells Lucas this is the first one he saw. So… even as a baby, he was deprived of daylight? Before they knew he was different? Or did he pop out of the womb with glowing eyes? Because frankly, if a child with glowing eyes was born into a religious cult, I don’t see it ending well for him.

I didn’t understand the whole rigmarole of Paul Sevier freeing Alton at peril of his job, then trying to randomly mitigate the damage by handcuffing himself like something out of a crap TV show — and in the end, still has his job and his position? So… nothing bad happened to him for freeing the kid? And hey, while we’re talking about that, I wasn’t super impressed with his “convincing” of Paul Sevier. Or that all those government agents would dutifully just walk away from the demands of a child.

Do these people look like they’d just walk away from a kid who could bring down satellites with a glance?

Is it supposed to be good or bad that Sevier’s interviewing Lucas? It’s not like he can get him freed, though I suppose he could help him escape….

Why are they putting electrodes on Roy? Do they suspect a genetic component? Roy’s eyes gleam as the sun rises; is it purely in reflection of the sun, or is he seeing the fancy city again, or are we just supposed to think ah, he’s seen the light! I kept wanting to ascribe religious motifs to this, but even with an upbringing in catholic schools, I couldn’t figure out what motifs those would be.

And for fuck’s sake, this movie was dark. Physically dark. I watched it on Blu-Ray on the big screen TV, in the darkened room, and I still called my roommate in to see if she could figure out what was going on in some scenes. She couldn’t. (The moment in question is where Alton is dying outside the car somehow and they all start stumbling into the darkness and end up in a dark cave because oh that helps. But then Alton literally sees the light and becomes light and his father witnesses it, and … I tell you, I feel like there is some religious aspect here, but it’s so fuzzy!)

This is one of the better lit scenes that happens at night.

That said, there were things to really enjoy about this movie.

The actors were great. Minus the scenes shot entirely in the dark, the actual film was beautiful to look at. There was a distinct style there. There were some wonderful story beats. Lucas is forced to shoot a state trooper (though the man presumably lives), and it tears him up. He’s angry and upset about it, but it’s not until half an act later that we learn Lucas himself is a state trooper. Which was a great moment. Good job, writer! I loved the alien/angelic/future city, though I was sad not to get more fallout from its appearance. It was a world-changing moment, and in the end, it didn’t feel like the world changed at all. And for a movie that had three distinct groups of POVs (The gov’t, the family, the church) that felt like a pity. We know how Lucas, Roy, and Sarah changed. But what about the Ranch? Did they see any of this? They expected an apocalypse that Alton would shepherd them through — what became of them? Did they see the city appear and what? Go all Heaven’s Gate? Or???

And now I’m back to yelling about the movie.

The FBI, the NSA, and the army was all involved. And yet at the end, the status quo feels very status quo. We’ll stick to procedure and question our suspects.

We see strangers in cities looking out at the encroaching dimension, but we just get gaping faces and nothing more….

What about random news shows? Throughout the movie, the TVs show news relevant to our protagonists (conveniently), but something so dramatic and strange? Nope, couldn’t be bothered to cover anything about the strange ghostly city of light that appeared and disappeared.

It felt like there was all this world-changing build up happening throughout the course of this movie, yet at the end, the world failed to change. I felt like this movie wanted to resonate deeply somehow — reveal something about humanity and how we’re not alone and miracles happen — yet what resonated most strongly was hey, parents would risk their lives for their children.

Which is fine, but it felt small in context.

So, I think the takeaway is: this was not a movie for me. I wanted to like it. I started off liking it. I liked lots of elements in it. And at the end, I was aggravated and annoyed that that was all I got. I wanted more story, and I wanted it told more evenly.

But hey, at least I have one more movie to go, right? So I’ll end this resolution on a high point, right? I mean, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has to be a winner…. Right???

All screencaps from imdb.com. Except government interrogation scene from Cinema Vine.

3 Comments

  • Aynora Drew December 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Apt review. This is exactly how I felt after I finished watching this right after it first came out on DVD. I wanted to like it because I love Jeff Nichols movies – Take Shelter (slightly spec fic, but I can’t say how), Loving, and Mud, for example. I too liked the city (I often watch the end of the film, because). I think he was going for the “Cocoon” or the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” reveal, but it just doesn’t work as well because the setup wasn’t explained or coherent.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins December 7, 2017 at 12:41 pm

      Yeah, I watched Close Encounters as a young child and I know that so much of it went over my head, and yet…. I also remember sitting there, totally rapt at the end, knowing that all of humanity was going to change. I felt it instinctively. This movie? Not so much. Interesting movie though, and for all my irritation, I’m not sorry I watched it.

      Reply
  • Shara White December 7, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    This is one that had intrigued me, and I may still give it a go if the opportunity arises. It looked fascinating!

    Reply

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