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Why ‘Midnight Special’ Is More than Just a Sci-fi Film

Director Jeff Nichols shares how his latest movie focuses on a fear every parent faces. 

Director Jeff Nichols talks Midnight Special
Credit: © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

It’s hard to define a film like Midnight Special.

On the surface, it’s a sci-fi thriller in the style of Starman and Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind— a chase movie sprinkled with supernatural elements.

Michael Shannon stars as a young father on the run with his best friend and young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher),  a boy who possesses mysterious abilities that make him the target of some very powerful, dangerous people. At its core, Midnight Special is a love story– specifically, the love between a parent and a child and what that all-consuming emotion can push a person to do.

Director Jeff Nichols, best known for his work with Matthew McConaughey in the 2012 drama Mud, has consistently focused on that complicated parent-child relationship in his films. In Mud, McConaughey played a fugitive on the run and a surrogate father of sorts. Nichols’ earlier thriller Take Shelter also starred Shannon – who’s popped up in every film the director’s done–as a young father and husband struggling with how to protect his family from a coming apocalypse.

 “You have this innate love for your children,” Nichols tells Guideposts.org about his decision to write films focused on parental bonds. “You have no control over their lives, you have no control over their safety or who they become, but you love them. I think there’s a tremendous amount of fear that develops from that.”

The challenges of faith are also weaved throughout the plot. Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) is a defector of a religious cult, one who believed the young boy’s abilities – he can pull information from satellites, cause meteors to fall from the sky and emit a strange light from his eyes – are intended to help them interpret messages from the Divine.

Each character comes with their own belief systems. Some are forced to confront them, like Adam Driver’s character, a government scientist sent to discover if Alton might be a threat to people. Or Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy’s childhood best-friend and an “agnostic” law-enforcement officer who’s swayed to help the boy after witnessing what he can do.

Nichols says the ambiguity of faith was purposeful on his part.

“I knew that audiences would be walking into the theater with their own belief systems. They would apply those to the film and that would start to affect the way they viewed the movie,” the director says. “I felt like, if I started closing off the walls too tightly with specifics, then it would shut some people out.”

Ultimately though, Nichols hopes audiences leave the theater with a renewed love of the genre and an understanding of the unconditional nature of parental love. 

“I would hope they would have some sense of what it means to me to be a young father,” he says. “That was the emotion that I was trying to carry through this whole process, this almost crippling love you have for these people in your life. I want people to get some essence of that while watching this film.”

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