Cult, family clash in science fiction thriller

The use of parallel universes, sometimes known as alternative reality, is a common feature in science fiction and its movie spinoffs. A couple of good recent examples were Another Earth and Source Code, both released in 2011.

The latest, Midnight Special (Warner Bros), also has strong connections to Starman and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, made in the early 1980s.

But Midnight Special differs vastly in tone from its sci-fi predecessors.

It is the fourth film from American writer-director Jeff Nichols and his second I’ve seen with Michael Shannon (99 Homes) in a lead role.

Take Shelter failed to gain a cinema release and is a compelling story of an overly protective father who is obsessed with an environmental  apocalypse.

Nichols also made Mud (2012), a Huckleberry Finn-influenced coming-of-age drama starring Matthew McConaughey. It also features Shannon, as did Nichols’ debut feature Shotgun Stories (2007) Like Mud, Midnight Special also features a child, Alton, who has supernatural powers and is played convincingly by Jaeden Lieberher.

At the opening, he’s held in a Texas hotel room by two men, Shannon (Alton’s father) and a former law enforcement officer (Australian actor Joel Edgerton). They have Alton hidden under a sheet wearing blue goggles and large orange earmuffs.

They have kidnapped Alton from a religious cult known as The Ranch, where for the past two years he has been the adoptive son (like all the boys there) of the leader (Sam Shepard).

Alton cannot tolerate sunlight, so many of these early scenes are in darkness as they make their getaway.

Things soon turn nasty as they are stopped by a police patrol and the search for the fugitive trio widens to include the FBI, National Security Agency as well as the cult.

The reason is Alton’s ability to use his eyes to beam a powerful and destructive force, though the purpose takes a while to be revealed.

Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) is also crucial to the story as the climax approaches and the NSA investigator (Adam Driver) gets closer to the truth.

The parents are naturally protective  of Alton but also realise he is well beyond their ability to do anything about his fate.

This is a thriller that works on several levels and is not afraid to explore spiritual and redemptive values.

In Take Shelter, Shannon was facing up to the possibilities of cosmic catastrophe and trying to respond  to them.

Midnight Special takes that a stage further by showing a new side to the cosmos and one that will leave you wanting more — including an explanation.

Rating: Mature audience (science fiction themes and violence); 111 minutes.


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Nevil Gibson

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