It’s a good time for faith-based films in America.
No, I’m not referring to the ghastly God’s Not Dead 2, but rather to the indie sci-fi movie of the moment, Midnight Special. A Texas-set adventure with humble production values befitting its rural American setting, Midnight Special tells the story of quasi-supernatural eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and the adults who take him on the run from the authorities after breaking him out of a religious cult that sprang up around Alton’s unusual abilities.
We’re dropped into the middle of the story with little in the way of backstory to go on. What we do know is that Alton’s superpowers—they involve a lot of glowing eyes and intercepted radio signals—force him into a nocturnal existence; the sun seems to be his kryptonite. When an Amber Alert goes out for Alton, his father Roy (Michael Shannon), enlisting the help of his wary state trooper friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), takes the child on the run to escape Alton’s capture by the authorities. They eventually cross paths with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who had abandoned her family two years earlier out of fear of Alton’s abilities, and government investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), whose mind races in his hunt for the child to rationalize Alton’s alleged superpowers.
While Midnight Special has plenty of sci-fi thrills and tense chase sequences on offer, its most notable feature is its exploration of the nature of religious faith. The four primary adult characters in the story each embody the different paths people take to faith, particularly one of a Christian variety.
Roy never doubts for a moment that his son is special. (He’s seen the kid’s glowing eye routine one time too many to dismiss it as ‘just a phase’.) As Alton’s mother, Sarah knows as much about Alton and his superpowers as Roy does, but fear of the unknown—and perhaps a latent fear of failing Alton as a mother—had driven her away. It’s only after Alton comes back into her life that she can work up the courage to confront and accept his alien tendencies.
Lucas is dragged unwittingly into Roy’s escape scheme and doesn’t know anything about Alton’s history of paranormal activity. As Alton grows increasingly frail and endures ever-more violent experiences, Lucas, doubtful of the connection between these episodes and Alton’s ill health, insists on bringing him to a hospital. Eventually Alton lets Lucas in on the truth of his special powers in a direct, one-on-one encounter; once a doubter, Lucas is henceforth the firmest believer in Alton’s otherworldly origins. As for Paul, despite his best efforts at rationalizing Alton’s existence as some sort of secret weapon, Alton eventually reveals himself and his powers to Paul in a private encounter not dissimilar to the story of a certain other famous Paul.
In every case, a direct relationship with Alton solidifies each adult’s faith in the child’s supernatural story (which is eventually, if sketchily, spelled out for the viewer too). Personal experience of the divine—or at least in this case, the paranormal—is hard to shake, and the movie’s epilogue places Lucas in the role of a scorned apostle to drive the point home.
Try to stretch the Christian angle any further and you may miss the movie’s ultimate point: good, old-fashioned sci-fi thrills. Even if at times Midnight Special feels like a sparsely-furnished shoebox diorama of a better Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan movie, the no-frills approach is a point in the movie’s favor. By keeping the special effects to a minimum, Nichols lets his stellar cast, tight editing, and explosive sound design do most of the talking. Better yet, his humble storytelling lets him slip in a poignant allegory of faith for those interested in it without sacrificing any artistic or entertainment value. In an age where God’s Not Dead did well enough at the box office to garner a sequel, we may as well count Midnight Special’s very existence as a cinematic miracle.