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6 April 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:55pm

The shortcomings of Midnight Special highlight exactly what Steven Spielberg does right

Steven Spielberg was evidently much on the mind of the writer-director Jeff Nicholls, whose new film harks back to the senior filmmaker’s golden age.

By Ryan Gilbey

At the end of next month, BFI Southbank will host a Steven Spielberg retrospective, beginning with a new 35mm print of the director’s cut of his 1977 masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I’ll return to the subject of Spielberg nearer the time but he was evidently much on the mind of the writer-director Jeff Nicholls, whose new film Midnight Special harks back to the senior filmmaker’s golden age. In this case, though, the shortcomings of Nicholls’s movie help throw into sharp relief exactly what it was that Spielberg got so right.

Midnight Special begins with an extreme close-up of a peep-hole in a motel door, except that the glass has been covered with duct tape so that no one can see either in or out. Hiding in the dingy room are Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), whose faces we see in a TV news broadcast flickering in the corner; they are wanted for the abduction of an eight-year-old boy.

It isn’t long before we see the “victim”: he’s sitting on the floor, reading comic books by torchlight beneath a white sheet. One minute in and already that’s two things we’ve seen covered up – the peep-hole and the child. When he emerges from beneath the sheet, his little face is overwhelmed by bulky headphones and swimming goggles. More concealment.

The contrast between blindness and illumination, darkness and light, will be one of the recurring themes here. This child, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has a miraculous gift: his peepers are liable at special moments to emit a dazzling white light that produces in the observer feelings of love and comfort.

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He’s like a benevolent version of the villains in The World’s End, who release beams of light from their accusing eyes and O-shaped mouths. And he isn’t exactly being kidnapped. Roy, his father, has liberated him from the Third Heaven Ranch, where his enigmatic gifts have been exploited by a shifty preacher (Sam Shepard). Now the FBI and the NSA are in pursuit, threatening the trio’s attempts to make it to some unspecified site in time for a mysterious rendezvous.

The outlaws travel by night. Alton sits in the back with his comics; “What’s Kryptonite?” he asks, which is dangerously close to an in-joke when your father is being played by General Zod from Man of Steel. Lucas is at the wheel wearing night-vision goggles. The headlights are off and we only know the car is there because we can hear its engine labouring in the dark.

For a good half-hour, Midnight Special gets by on old-fashioned, tantalising suspense: we don’t know where Alton is heading, or the precise nature of his gift, and it seems at that point that the movie could be about almost anything. A couple of ambitious set-pieces (one at a petrol station, the other at the home of one of Roy’s associates) inflame magnificently the sense of magic, so it can only be disappointing when the film plumps finally for a common-or-garden explanation to what we’ve been watching.

The cast members – also including Kirsten Dunst in a thankless role as Alton’s mother and Adam Driver as a slightly bumbling NSA agent – have quite the repertoire between them of awestruck reaction shots. But their goggle-eyes and gaping mouths can’t convince us that what we are seeing is visionary, any more than it could in Tomorrowland, another recent science-fiction adventure which also squandered an intriguing set-up.

The film shares its title with the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song that featured prominently in Twilight Zone: The Movie, the underrated 1983 portmanteau movie that counted Spielberg among its four directors.

It’s not only him who looms over Midnight Special; there are also strong echoes of Disney’s Witch Mountain adventures – Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Return from Witch Mountain (1978) – as well as John Carpenter’s bewitching Starman (1984). But it is the Spielbergian effect, where innocence feeds into wonder, which Nicholls is aiming for, and which he fails signally to achieve. I think I know why.

The picture aspires to cast a spell of the same intensity found in Close Encounters and ET the Extra Terrestrial, but it doesn’t bother to do any of the heavy lifting that is required to pave the way for grandeur. The greatness of those earlier movies isn’t related to the scale of their spectacle. Rather it is the close proximity of the spectacular to the quotidian that makes them so wonderful. In Spielberg’s best work, miracles happen in between doing the housework, or while families are squabbling or falling apart.

The stunning UFO shots in Close Encounters would count for much less were they not set alongside scenes of Richard Dreyfuss losing his mind among his noisy kids and his bewildered wife and his mashed potato sculpture.

The best sequence in the whole film – the abduction of the child in the middle of the night – is rooted in the details of messy domesticity (the toys that spring to life on the bedroom floor) and the everyday mise en scène (the screws unscrewing themselves, the vacuum cleaner whizzing across the floor of its own accord). The same is true of ET. The title character may leave Elliot’s life in a shower of light but he enters it ignominiously, hiding in a cluttered shed on pizza night.

Spielberg and his contemporaries (Scorsese, De Palma, Lucas, Coppola) are routinely described as the first generation of directors who grew up on movies and then fed what they had seen back into their own work. But their homages never overwhelmed their attention to detail; real life is always in there, muddled up with the layers of cinephilia.

That is the crucial difference with Midnight Special, which is all movie. There is little in the film unconnected to its plot; it has no inner life. The actors try their damnedest, especially Shannon and Edgerton, but they don’t have any nuances to play – only notes that will move the plot forward, or amplify the implied awe.

It might have been subtly different if Nicholls had started the film at an earlier point in the story, so that we had a chance to see Alton before he was snatched by his father. That might have provided an even more suspenseful opening, in which a child is abducted without the audience knowing initially the identity or intentions of his captors.

But he’s on the run from the get-go, and there isn’t even time to make a pit-stop to, say, a crummy roadside restaurant so that we can get a taste of Americana to add flavouring to the fantasy. It is this obliviousness to the ordinary that finally prevents Midnight Special from achieving any specialness of its own.

Midnight Special opens on Friday. Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Director’s Cut is re-released on 27 May.