“Not All That Close of an Encounter”
Most reviews of Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special (2016) suggest he is trying to make a blockbuster science-fiction film in the tradition of Steven Spielberg. In his positive review for The A.V. Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky finds the film to be “a unique blend of chase flick and sci-fi parable,” concluding that, “It’s very Spielberg-esque.” In his negative review for The Guardian, “Close Encounters of a Turgid Kind,” Benjamin Lee argues that, “Sadly, the Spielbergian magic that Nichols so desperately wants to recreate is almost entirely absent from the end product and without it, there’s something disappointingly lifeless instead.”
Indeed, in an interview for the website, Little White Lies: Truth and Movies, Nichols suggests he was “looking at sci-fi films from the ‘80s—specifically government sci-fi chase films like Starman, Close Encounters and E.T.—looking structurally at how the narratives unfolded in those films but also the aesthetic of those films; the colors, lens flares and the general feeling and tone.”
Such an homage to Spielberg at first seems surprising, since Nichols’ earlier films—Shotgun Stories (2007) and Mud (2012)—are exquisite character studies in a particularly American independent film idiom. Furthermore, his masterpiece, Take Shelter (2011) eschews classical storytelling for a much more powerful sense of allegory. However, Midnight Special, almost as good as Take Shelter, seeks not to emulate Spielberg but instead to use his work as a springboard toward something quite different from mainstream Hollywood film.
Midnight Special (2016) indeed shares a close intertextual relationship with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). In the earlier film, a number of dreamers are summoned to Devil’s Tower in order to be the first humans to greet a benevolent visiting alien spaceship. The film begins with the abduction of a number of characters, most importantly for Spielberg’s emotional spine, a three-year old boy, Barry. His mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) becomes obsessed with UFO lore in an effort to find her missing son. Meanwhile, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) becomes equally driven, losing his family when he sculpts Devil’s Tower, first out of mashed potatoes and then destroying his entire living room to create a much larger model out of lawn furniture. Roy and Jillian team up in their quest to climb Devil’s Tower to be among the first humans to make contact with the alien race, overcoming a massive U.S. military cover-up to do so.
Nichols builds Midnight Special out of these Spielberg motifs. The obsessive father is again named Roy, this time played by Nichols’ go-to actor, Michael Shannon. The latter Roy has been living with a cult on The Ranch. The religious, led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd) believe Roy’s son, Alton to be the harbinger of the savior’s return. Alton has supernatural powers, decoding numbers that really are encrypted U.S. government satellite data, but which the believers take to be messages from God. Aided by his wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and his best friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy has kidnapped Alton from the cult, and is now the quarry of a dual front manhunt, pursued both by the U.S. government and the cult members.
Nichols’ representation of the government shares nothing with that in Spielberg’s films, where, as in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), they tend to be jack-booted fascists intent on commandeering the aliens for unspoken but obviously nefarious purposes. In his definitive essay on “The Lucas-Spielberg Syndrome,” Robin Wood claims that Spielberg films veer from the useful child-like wonder that the cinema properly specializes in, to the child-ish, seeing the world as a melodrama in which righteous individuals are besieged by the malevolent society at large.
In Woods’ terms, Nichols subverts the childish in order to celebrate the child-like. While the pursuers in Midnight Special include all sorts of stock military toughs and government wonks, Alton refuses to engage them, instead selecting a nerdy NSA analyst, Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) as the only one to whom he will speak. Sevier’s French name, I think, links him to the benevolent scientific leader in Close Encounters, Claude Lacombe, played by a hero of Spielberg the cinephile, French New Wave director, Francois Truffault.
While Close Encounters and Midnight Special are headed toward the same special-effects-laden climax where we meet the aliens and marvel at their wonders, Nichols chooses to get there differently. Close Encounters uses the grandiosity of Devil’s Tower to complete a circuit of Americana. Jillian and Roy are drawn westward to a famous natural landmark, set amidst the American West so important to the history of Hollywood film. Completely dissolving such imagery, the climax of Midnight Special occurs outside of Pensacola, Florida, in a nondescript empty field.
When Nichols’ aliens finally do arrive, they express themselves as modernist architects, more World’s Fair than Hollywood blockbuster. At this point, Midnight Special converges back with Close Encounters: the aliens in both films are light-generating humanoids who seem inquisitive about our humanity, but only willing to bring one back into their world. In Close Encounters, Roy gets the honor of climbing aboard the alien spaceship; in Midnight Express, the aliens welcome Alton into their midst, apparently as an avatar for future encounters with humanity.
Rather than seeing Midnight Special as a concession to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, I think it is in concert with the ending of Take Shelter, an equally special-effects laden presentation of the ocean being consumed by the biblical storms that Michael Shannon’s Curtis, in his capacity as a latter-day Noah, has predicted from the start. Nichols is one of our most inventive filmmakers, telling stories of complex characters negotiating highly allegorical circumstances. In Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols may be using Steven Spielberg’s building blocks, but what he creates cinematically with them is an artwork all his own.