Midnight Special

Escape to Witch Mountain: Indie film edition
Jeff Nichols
Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver
The Setup: 
Father and his hunky friend escape government agents with supernatural boy.

This is the fourth movie by Jeff Nichols, and also the fourth to star Michael Shannon. I saw Take Shelter, which had a very intriguing premise and was interesting to watch, until it started to lose interest with a dull and ambiguous climax, and my enduring memory is of not liking it much at all. I did not see Mud with Matthew McConaughey, although it looked good and got good reviews… It turned out to be one of those movies that I want to see until it appears on Netflix, available at any time, at which point I lose all interest in seeing it. Only when it left Netflix was I once again interested in seeing it. But after this film, I’m beginning to think that perhaps Nichols makes a specialty of films that are kind of interesting and have very good setups but have very lame conclusions that make one reassess the entire film negatively.

The majority of reviews for this one faulted it’s ending, which retroactively dampens enthusiasm for everything that came before it, which everyone also agrees was quite good. And that pretty much turns out to be the case. It’s a very good movie, with very good scenes and excellent acting, and then it all just kind of comes to something pat and uninspiring that makes the entire thing seem mediocre in retrospect. It is also a flat-out straight-up indie film remake of the seminal Disney film Escape to Witch Mountain. My friend reminds me that, while this rather minor Disney film is seminal and formative to me, it has in fact have slipped from the cultural memory, and most people don’t even know about it. So, had you never seen Escape to Witch Mountain or the recent remake, Race to Witch Mountain, you can go into this without knowing precisely what is going to happen.

The movie opens in a nicely intriguing way with Michael Shannon as Roy and his hunky buddy Lucas sneaking his son Alton away from pursuing authorities. The movie just drops us in and doesn’t let us know what’s happening, which has a good effect, but in retrospect may be simply a ploy to generate more interest then we might have had if we knew what was happening. We are then thrown into a kind of semi-cult ranch, with numerous sister-wife type women and a charismatic leader in Sam Shepard, but what they do is recite geographic coordinates instead of scripture. They are soon all rounded up and held by the FBI until they can be questioned about the boy, and eventually Adam Driver arrives on the scene as the one who will be tasked with determining what’s going on with Alton and procuring him for the government.

The movie has several good and very effective scenes, and I want to stress that it really keeps you engaged and excited while it is going on. In one good scene, they stop at the home of a suburban guy to take shelter overnight. The interest is added to by not really knowing who this guy is and not knowing what is going on with this kid, but seeing the entire thing treated with an air of spirituality or religious fervor which keeps us intrigued. The man is told to leave the kid alone, but he has to go in and see him for himself. In the morning dad wakes up with what seems like an earthquake going on. He opens the door to find a bright beam of light shooting from his son’s eyes to the face of the man, but what is really good about the scene is that we’re in this dark room which starts coming apart with the force of whatever is happening, and suddenly a wall breaks and brilliant sunlight streams into the room. It’s such a shocking change of image that it really works effectively to make you essentially jump out of your skin. Roy and Lucas have to once again grab the kid and continue on the run.

The movie is also effectively increasing tension and riveting my interest by flaunting Joel Edgerton’s hunky sexuality in front of me in snug canvas work pants and a short cropped haircut, constantly displaying him as 10, or perhaps even 15 different kinds of sexy at once, and manipulating my emotions for the larger part of the total running time.

Perhaps the coolest, and definitely my favorite, scene occurs when they stop at a gas station. They tell the kid to stay in the van and both adults leave him—great idea guys, nothing will happen, just go grab a few snacks—but of course the kid hops out of the van first thing. By now we are beginning to piece together that he can hear radio frequencies and in this scene he even hears a satellite. We see him look to the sky and see a distant flash, then he has to be rescued from a helpful woman, and a few seconds later we’re seeing what looks like fireworks in the sky. Just as you’re wondering what it all is, is a bunch of meteorites start raining down on the gas station and smashing the fuck out of everything, causing mass panic. It would seem that our young charge has pulled a satellite out of the sky and brought it directly to his location. The set up is intriguing, we don’t know what’s happening until it all begins to go off, and the resolution is pretty awesome. And keeps us guessing at what this kid’s powers are and what it all is coming to. At this point while watching, I have to say I was completely intrigued by this movie, 100% on board, and enjoying at all the way.

Soon we introduce Kirsten Dunst as the kid’s mother, and what a pleasure it was to see her again. She is such a good actor and I don’t know why she isn’t recognized as being one of the best, most honest actors working today. I think she deserves much more recognition and status then she gets. She is an expert at containing depths of emotion within her expressions that tell the entire story with just one look. Luckily she is given a lot to do here and she runs away with it. Hats off to you, Kirsten Dunst!

Anyway, the movie continues quite good and quite intriguing and keeping you involved all the way up to the ending. Thing is, I find I’m not inspired to discuss some of the specific scenes and meandering wrinkles in the story, because the patness of the ending makes me uninterested to revisit them. I will say that the movie keeps you intrigued and guessing, doling out little clues and also sparingly using special effects, so that they still maintain an impact and evoke wonder. Anyway, eventually we get to the ending.

Alton, it seems, can create this bubble thing that looks exactly like the bubble shock waves we’ve been seeing in a bunch of movies lately, most recently Batman v Superman (it’s in the trailer), with this giant bubble of energy growing exponentially. A few years ago it was all about giant columns of light that go up into the sky and create a circle of clouds around them, now its giant bubbles of energy. Anyway, he makes a comment about that he belongs to a people who are above the sky and you’re like “Oh no, oh no, please don’t let it just be aliens, and he’s just an alien, and they just have to return him to his people and that’ll be the end of the story.” Perhaps the whole thing is so disappointing because after that, you guess what the ending will be, and the movie goes onto simply deliver that ending that you knew was coming.

The one surprise is that it is his mother who delivers him to the aliens, when it has been his father who has shepherded him across the country and through the entire movie. She takes them to a big field where he makes the bubble thing, and within the bubble thing essentially they visit Tomorrowland as rendered in Disney’s recent flop. Turns out there’s a bunch of big skyscrapers and pools and planters in a kind of city that is becoming very common in special effects right now, between Tomorrowland and Allegiantand all these things that all look vaguely the same. Turns out this city is going on right now, on this earth, but in a different dimension. This giant bubble that Alton creates consumes the entire lower Eastern portion of the United States, which is kind of a cool effect, and it exposes this other dimension to the millions of people living in that region. Why this needs to happen, what’s going to happen with all those people who saw this vision of these vast cities, and why the aliens would want to reveal themselves to millions and millions of people… none of these questions are ever explored or asked. But that’s what happens! The nice aliens come and pick up Alton and take him to their city, the whole thing vanishes, mom feels satisfied and devastated, dad gets thrown in jail, and that’s the end.

Along the way I was thinking this is really just to Escape to Witch Mountain, because in that movie we have a road trip with a child (in that case, children) who can do a bunch of amazing things just in time to get themselves out of any number of hairy situations. And the fun comes from seeing them outwit pursuing authorities again and again by doing something amazing and magical. Then, when it was suggested that Alton comes from aliens, and the entire movie is him escaping from authorities while having to make it to a certain geographical pick up point, I was like “Wow this really IS just a remake of Escape to Witch Mountain!” But you’re thinking “It can’t be just a remake, can it? They’re not just going to do that and nothing more, are they?” And then, they do. And when they do, it unfortunately comes to so little that it devalues everything that came before, as smart and ingenious and well-directed, well-written and well-acted as it was. By the way, as seen in the film, the aliens are all over the earth, so the logic of having to get to this one pick-up point, and building the entire movie around getting him there, is invalidated and revealed as nothing but a big red herring in retrospect.

So there you go, a very good movie with a disappointing ending. It is very gripping and intriguing and fun for 85% of its running time, and that really is an achievement. Nichols really knows how to create and escalate interest and keep the audience intrigued. Everyone delivers fine and very rich performances. Joel Edgerton provides the sex appeal. But then it comes to… not nothing, but something we’ve seen before and something disappointingly pat. It might have been different had it stayed closer to Escape to Witch Mountain and ended with a uplifting feeling of everyone being happy to get the kids where they belong rather than the mother’s devastation at losing her child and these attempted seriousness of the FBI cover up in such things.

In any case, an A+ movie that gets downgraded to a C because of it is ending. A movie with several outstanding achievements for most of its running time, that ultimately gets thrown in the memory bin as somewhat mediocre. It’s too bad, but the ending left such a bad taste with me that I don’t really care. And I’m happy to consign this film to a scrapheap of mediocrity. But let’s definitely see more Kirsten Dunst.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely when it comes on cable or streaming. Not sure you need to pay for it.