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Midnight Special makes a smart, concise case for sci-fi minimalism

What lots of movies could stand to learn from the sparse, low-budget thriller.

Midnight Special.
Midnight Special.
Warner Bros.

Midnight Special is a moody sci-fi creepshow, part terse road thriller, part magical kid movie, part otherworldy hallucination. It’s quiet and spare, a medium-budget movie that makes the most of its unusual premise by not explaining it too much; it draws its greatest power from what it leaves unsaid.

The film, from writer-director Jeff Nichols, calls back to the greats of small, weird '80s horror and science fiction. In tone, style, and substance it is an implicit rebuke of the overly loud, overly determined, overly expository tendencies of big-budget science fiction, and a concise case for sci-fi minimalism.

The movie’s minimalist tendencies reveal themselves in the script’s terse dialogue, which never stops to check in with the audience and instead expects viewers to keep up on their own.

Its story begins after the action has already started; two men and a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) are on the run. One of the men is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who we eventually learn is a state trooper. The other is his friend Roy (Michael Shannon), the boy's father. They’re waiting in a seedy hotel room, the windows covered in cardboard, guns at the ready, and then they head out. It’s clear they’re hiding from something, but there isn't much explanation of their situation or even their exact relationships, save for a broadcaster in the background who announces news of a missing child. "It’s time," Roy says, and then they drive off. The scene tells you everything you need to know — which, it turns out, isn’t all that much.

The movie’s devotion to this sort of expository sparseness is incredibly refreshing. Contemporary blockbusters, especially those with premises that require explanation, have a tendency to deliver exposition in giant dumps of dialogue or narration that interrupt the action, as if pausing to briefly stage a reading of the movie’s Wikipedia page in order to get viewers up to speed.

Midnight Special, in contrast, refuses to provide the audience with momentum-breaking footnotes. It’s not that the film withholds information; it just doles it out with care, forcing viewers to piece together details on their own, working through the bits and pieces as they come up rather than delivering it in an extended rundown.

Midnight Special's sense of mystery, mood, and tone recall classic '80s genre films by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter

In many ways, then, the movie harks back to an earlier era of smaller, stranger genre films. Its most obvious influence is Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the poster quotes a review from Empire calling it "close encounters of a new kind"). And director Nichols certainly borrows much from Spielberg’s first-contact film: the shaking houses and flashing lights during unexplained encounters, the central parent-child relationship, the relentless drive toward a final otherworldly experience. Midnight Special isn’t a J.J. Abrams-style Spielberg knockoff, or even close, but it clearly exists in intelligent conversation with Spielberg's work.

Unlike Spielberg, however, Nichols is more concerned with mood and tone. Everything in the movie is muted and hushed, blanketed by a gnawing sense of dread and uncertainty. Shannon, Edgerton, and Shepard all underplay their roles, imbuing their characters with an anxious stillness, even when on the run. There’s an off-kilter flatness to their performances and to much of the imagery, especially the interiors, as if it has been deliberately drained of color.

Even the walls of the rooms in which many of the scenes take place have been stripped bare. The movie’s many night scenes are about as dark as you can imagine without being pitch black. The vibe is expectant, gothic, apocalyptic, as if the end of everything — or at least the end of something — lies just around the corner. Midnight Special is a sci-fi thriller, but in tone and style it often feels more like a horror film.

And in that sense, as other critics have pointed out, the movie looks more like a direct descendant of John Carpenter, whose '80s films — in particular The Thing and Escape From New York — were models of cinematic efficiency, driven by a sense of unspeakable dread as much as any plot point. Even Midnight Special's score, a lean, leery keyboard riff by David Lingo, sounds like vintage Carpenter.

Even more than Carpenter, though, the movie’s deliberately unnerving atmosphere reminded me of vintage David Cronenberg, another 1980s genre master whose low- and mid-budget movies blurred the boundaries between thriller, horror, and science fiction, and whose films often relied on body horror, hard-to-explain powers, and physical transformations for their premises. Like Nichols, Cronenberg's films often relied on flat affect and a general sense of unease, as if reality had somehow started to fracture and was just about to break entirely.

The film makes a strong case that in the world of sci-fi, smaller and weirder is better

Nichols mines all of these filmmakers and their traditions extensively, and synthesizes them into something that feels both fresh and deeply rooted in cinematic history. Midnight Special plays like a great, lost genre film from the 1980s. And it offers a reminder than when it comes to science fiction, sometimes smaller and weirder is better. The movie’s budget was just $18 million, and while there are a number of special effects–heavy sequences, it never feels like an effects-shop demo reel. Instead, it’s an attempt to tell a story, capture a mood, create and sustain a sensation. It’s true cinema, not simple spectacle.

Indeed, the final act plays oddly like the end of last summer’s ill-fated sci-fi nostalgia piece Tomorrowland, as the characters encounter another world stacked right on top of their own. Visually speaking, Tomorrowland, with a budget more than 10 times the size of Midnight Special’s, has far more to offer. But Midnight Special, with its eerie atmospherics and understated presentation, moved me far more than anything in Disney’s overstuffed special effects extravaganza. It’s a reminder that big-screen science fiction can work just as well — and in some cases, far better — on a smaller, more human scale.