Midnight Special (2016)

★★★★

Midnight Special PosterDirector: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst

The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.

A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.

Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).

The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.

Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.

But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.

It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.

Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.

For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.

Midnight Special - Jaeden Lieberher & Michael Shannon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

★★★

Tomorrowland PosterDirector: Brad Bird

Release Date: May 22nd, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Family

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy

We shouldn’t be surprised that Tomorrowland is a giant bouncing ball of alacrity. From Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles (the hint is in the title), comes a film packed with a positive punch. “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow,” we’re told at the very beginning via cheery song. Shortly thereafter, a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) engages in conversation with Tomorrowland overseer David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Nix asks about the practicality of Walker’s jet pack creation. Walker, wide-eyed and all, replies: “Can’t it just be fun?”

Though it may not have been sufficiently clear from Disney’s muddled marketing campaign — one possible factor in a disappointing opening weekend financially — this is a film about incentive and inspiration, enjoyment and energy. Whereas evasive trailers have partly sold the piece as a sci-fi escape and partly as a family drama, the movie itself is far from confused. Tomorrowland is bright, and it knows it.

Starring Britt Robertson as the self-prescribed ultra-optimist Casey Newton (probably related to Isaac), the story follows her eventful journey as she searches high and low for a mysterious place called Tomorrowland. Accompanying her are recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and the now older, world-weary Frank (George Clooney). Casey is the human embodiment of the film’s joyful prerogative. Her school teachers drawl on about end of world scenarios — spouting warnings on everything from nuclear Armageddon to environmental degradation — but all Casey wants to know is how to fix these problems.

Just as the camera struggles to go more than a minute without whizzing towards a Hall of Invention or something of similar ilk, Casey can’t spend any significant length of time without exuding eagerness. She would be the perfect citizen of Tomorrowland, where everything is so big and bold. In Mad Max: Fury Road — which shares the same sticking-by-one’s-convictions mantra — vehicles are bolted on top of other vehicles. Here, we see skyscrapers double up to create super skyscrapers. Bird spends a long time worldbuilding, striving to convey a sense of wondrous momentum from the off. It is probably too long, especially when we spend so little of the two hours actually in Tomorrowland.

Robertson is charming and consistently watchable as our central character. Quite brilliantly, she manages to be sprightly but not sickening. Unlike in the television series Under the Dome, this is a much more assured performance from the actor (admittedly, her character in the former offers little in the way of depth). Young newcomer Raffey Cassidy is a victim of the hyped up and overly long sugary beginning, her verbiage a tad too sentimental. The talented teen increases in charm as the film progresses though, to the point where the screen significantly benefits from her presence.

Damon Lindelof’s screenplay avoids the politics and greed normally rife in the world we know. This lack of cynicism is actually quite refreshing, and the film shouldn’t be kicked for carrying a hopeful message. It should be saluted, really, for moulding its message of hope into a pertinent discussion about the state of humankind. At one point Casey exclaims, “It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up!”, a statement epitomised by the film itself. Tomorrowland is more than just a surface level blockbuster. At its core, it boasts a perceptive idea about how we, humanity, have accepted and monetised our demise. Bird and Lindelof should have mined this concept further, but its inclusion is evidence that their script isn’t naive, nor ill-judged.

However, it can’t quite dodge plot holes. Terminator-ish humanoid robots show up occasionally wearing goofy smiles (obviously) and guided by a view to kill, though it’s never really apparent why. The existence of the film’s grandiose, hidden cityscape is also somewhat puzzling. Sure, it looks great and has some cool gravity defying roads, but what exactly is it? And where did it come from? Rather than answering these questions, Bird and Lindelof seem to be more transfixed by their attempts to include as many cinematic references as possible.

And who can blame them? There are so many fun touchstones: Baymax bubble suits are worn with jet packs as a safety precaution; attire-wise, the futuristic land resembles The Hunger Games’ unconventional Capitol style; visually, moments of inter-dimensional travel momentarily resemble David Bowman’s cosmological pilgrimage in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Charles Xavier’s Cerebro room gets an interactive Google Maps makeover. A Forbidden Planet-esque store that we enter midway through the piece is a treasure trove of movie geekdom.

Aside from his presence as part of an unnecessary narration tactic that materialises every so often, George Clooney is introduced to us with the sun beaming down behind him and illuminating half his face, probably because he is God. Frank has a grizzled beard and is a bit moody, but that’s as rebellious as it gets. He delivers a “son of a” but no “bitch”.

Frank’s downbeat personality is the story in a nutshell — someone once driven by promise who has presently accepted defeat, but can be saved. “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” Frank muses when Casey persistently asks about his cool house gadgetry, and you sort of get the feeling that in lesser hands this would be the film speaking to its audience. Neither a baddie, nor a goody, Hugh Laurie’s David Nix is a misstep. The presidential figure is very thinly drawn, though the actor does deliver a really compelling speech towards the end summarising humanity’s passiveness.

Tomorrowland doesn’t throw the cat among the pigeons. The closest we get to edgy is a non-diegetic rock tune that accompanies Casey as she invades a NASA launch station while wearing a treasured NASA cap given to her by her NASA-employed father. The film tells the world that we have lost our way and that we can reclaim our rosy roots, but that we should strive to be even better than before. It is what it is and if you’re happy to spend a few hours riding a roller coaster of cerebral optimism, it is for you.

Tomorrowland - Hall of Invention

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures