A new Close Encounters?

The beetle-browed Michael Shannon is best known as General Zod, who had his neck snapped in Man of Steel – but Superman isn’t finished with him yet. According to the Batman v Superman trailer, Zod – or at least Zod’s corpse – is due to make a cameo appearance, and in the meantime Shannon is dealing with a very Superman-like eight-year-old in Midnight Special.

One of the most acclaimed Competition entries so far at the Berlin Film Festival, Jeff Nichols’ brooding take on the superhero genre imagines what would happen if a young boy’s extraordinary powers made him a prize coveted by apocalyptic cultists and government agents alike.

Not that the film’s superheroic tendencies are immediately evident. The opening of Midnight Special is a masterclass in how to hook an audience by offering them the smallest and most tantalising taste of what’s to come.

Nichols, the writer-director of Mud and Take Shelter, begins with a TV news report about a boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) being abducted in rural Texas. We then meet the two desperate-looking men responsible for the abduction, Roy (Shannon) and his crewcut buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton, bringing some much-needed regular-guyness to the film). They are holed up in a motel room with Alton, a quiet, confident boy who seems normal enough, despite wearing blue-tinted swimming goggles at all times. We don’t know what the men want with him, but we see that they will keep hold of him at all costs, whether that means driving their vintage Chevrolet through the night with the headlights off or shooting a state trooper who gets in their way.

The scenario becomes even more riveting when FBI agents raid The Ranch, the headquarters of a folksy religious sect led by an imposing preacher, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). The preacher’s sermons, it seems, contain material from top-secret government communications. And Calvin got that material from a disciple of his who speaks in tongues: Alton. The only explanation is that the boy must be psychic. The question is, just how psychic is he?

For the viewer, though, the question is, what sort of film is this, anyway? A hardboiled kidnap thriller? A religious satire? A spy movie? A science-fiction blockbuster? The answer is ‘All of the above’ which is what makes the beginning of Midnight Special so exhilarating. There aren’t many films that pack so much intrigue into their early scenes. The later scenes, unfortunately, aren’t quite so gripping. First, Nichols makes the mistake of leaving Calvin and The Ranch behind, thus neglecting one of cinema’s cast-iron rules: “Any film with Sam Shepard in it will seem a lot worse once Sam Shepard is no longer in it.” And then he leaves behind the mystery that he had so skilfully constructed.

All too soon, Midnight Special reveals the sketchy truth behind Alton’s identity, and the film becomes a conventional sci-fi road movie with some very obvious antecedents. You don’t have to be psychic to notice its debt to Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET The Extra Terrestrial. And it’s hard not to groan when Adam Driver’s amusingly gawky government boffin stares at a whiteboard covered in figures from Calvin’s sermons, and then exclaims, “Those numbers, they’re co-ordinates!” Well, of course they are. They’re always co-ordinates.

From then on, all that distinguishes Midnight Special from any other competent Spielberg / Carpenter knock-off is its insistence that it’s being ominous and profound. Sometimes, you can go along with it. The film’s nocturnal eeriness is compelling enough to pull you past several plot holes, and the sudden demonstrations of Alton’s powers  are spine-tingling, in spite of the substandard CGI. The acting is outstanding, too, with typically intense work not just from Shannon and Edgerton but also Kirsten Dunst, playing a former Ranch member the fugitives meet on the run.

At other times, however, Nichols’ portentous film is weighed down by a self-importance that its flimsy narrative can’t quite support. Between the Christian symbolism and the desolate atmosphere, you get the impression that Nichols watched ET, Starman and Close Encounters, and thought, wouldn’t it be astounding to make a very solemn update of the superhero / science-fiction movies of the 1970s and ’80s?

What he doesn’t seem to have realised is that we’ve been watching that type of film for years, from M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable to Rian Johnson’s Looper, from Sound of my Voice to, yes, Man of Steel, all of which are echoed in Midnight Special. Nichols isn’t just arriving late at the superheroes party; he’s arriving late at the taking-superheroes-very-seriously party. You can only be entranced by so many close-ups of Dunst and Shannon’s pained expressions before you realise that you’ve seen it all before.