Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are in a motel room on the highway to Atlanta with Roy's eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) who is sporting a pair of blue goggles and orange headphones for medical reasons. Those reasons are why they both have kidnapped the child, with Roy believing he has to be brought to a specific place some way away from civilisation, and certainly away from both the authorities and the cult that Alton was born into, a sect which both Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) once belonged to. They are keen to have the boy back, their leader (Sam Shepard) considering big plans for him, but the FBI are onto them too, and have the lot of them taken in for questioning. What is so special about Alton, anyway?
The twenty-first century filmmaker's drive to recreate the movies of their youth continued with what looked like an indie facsimile of a sci-fi blockbuster, but actually had some big studio muscle behind it from Warners that got it made and into cinemas across the world where there were high hopes for the production. Alas, it was not to be, and Midnight Special failed to take off with audiences, leaving the cult following that probably suited it better, not that many involved would have been averse to raking in mighty profits and mass adulation, as it certainly appeared to be director Jeff Nichols' attempt at more mainstream acceptance. You can take the boy out of indie, but you can't take the indie out of the boy.
Hence the smaller returns on the studio's investment as befitting the work of the man behind low key minor successes like Take Shelter and Mud. Say this for Nichols, he did give the equally cult figure Michael Shannon interesting roles to play, and here the actor's intimidating qualities were well served in a tale that had us unsure of how to take him: was he behaving in the best interests of his son or had those years in the sect warped his perceptions, and he had drawn in cop Lucas on this possibly foolhardy adventure? The answer to that was forthcoming far too swiftly in a film that was happy to play the mystery card for some elements, even to a point after the story was over, but too keen to make other aspects crystal clear when keeping us in the dark would have ramped up the intrigue.
Another issue was that once it was over, it seemed less a satisfying five course sci-fi banquet and more a quick brunch before something more substantial came along. While it was unfolding it was engaging enough, the mystery was strong and kept you interested, but by the end you realised that it had amounted to a tribute to a bunch of seventies and eighties movies that indicated where this was going in much the same way, therefore it was not as surprising as it thought it was. If, for example, you had experienced Steven Spielberg's huge Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Stephen King's second division novel Firestarter or John Carpenter's misty-eyed Starman (David Wingo's score was very Carpenter-esque, as was the rule with these throwbacks) then you pretty much had a strong grasp on what we had in store from the off.
That said, while a lot of those eighties alien movies liked to spin their yarn from the child's perspective, Midnight Special was different in that it took the adults' point of view, indicating where Nichols had taken his inspiration from. Yes, those vintage flicks, but also his experience of being a father and wishing to look after his child the best he could while being aware of how difficult it was to shield them from a world that wanted to take a big piece of their experience and use it to its own ends; just as Roy cannot fully control Alton's fate, neither can a parent ensure that their offspring will find safety once they start to grow and become independent in thought and deed. With that in mind, this began to seem a lot more valid than it would be if you approached it as a basic science fiction magic child plot, and if it was trying to mask its essential simplicity in enigma, then the trappings Nichols arranged were nicely handled with some unfussy but well-detailed effects and sympathetic performances, once you had worked out what everyone was trying to achieve. No classic, but with some worth the further you contemplated it.