Into this wry (inadvertent?) satire of present day U.S., Jeff Nichols grafts, or really, bleeds a triple-feature of films into Midnight Special. Starman, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also, toss in the Spielberg's parental road film Sugarland Express). Maybe it's default that by 2016, there'd be no inner sanctum of scientists examining extraterrestrial invasion plots, these days we're treating all aliens as terrorist wannabees. The 70s-80s trilogy of arrivals divined outcomes as conficts between science and the military. Military gets outwitted in Starman, military and science are evaded in E.T., military protects scientific discovery from the general public in Encounters. From the evidence, whiffs of Watergate went a long way to torque the conspiracy aspect of UFOs. Here in the age of Snowden we're offered a splitting of scientific presences into codebreaking and deity worship. A wishy washy NSA up and comer played by Adam Driver, who misidentifies the boy-savant-being he babysits a "weapon," and at the other extreme stands religion, led by a father who basks beatifically in the sun of his son from a prison yard.
What Nichols leaves us in the dark about is the kid. What's he really doing, letting his two uncertain parents, cult survivors into the film's inner sanctums to take the fall for his journey. We're tentative witnesses to one 'verse-switch (defining the plot's scientific POV as an unexplained mystery), witnessed by his father, and then at the end we get the full picture, an overlap of dimensions that seems to overtake the whole eastern gulf-coast.
Midnight Special's got a southern gothic vibe of guns and evangelicals, framing a multi-verse evolutionary state of mind, but the two extremes never really meet. The tragedy is its dour assumption about post-9-11 lacking curiosity leading all to a mysterious quantum hippiedom coda that weirdly veers to a Warner Bros. crime-redemption film ending. That's the rub, there's so much gunplay, you wonder if it's a true indictment of our present day, or is the shooting just to verfiy our leads' certainty in some heroic way (they'll kill for him)? That's what Nichols buys with his reduction, a strict lack of backstory that never connects emotionally. Snippets get us some where near complexity, but it doesn't all shine. We get their fervor, but we're denied their loss. The adults carry their somberness in waves of tics, words are held tight, people seem afraid to express their emotions and their ideas. Cleverly, there's something remarkably cold-war Soviet about the fears involved, mirroring the America of the 50's where characterless and wandering souls near zombiefication. All know they need to help Alton, but beyond their private faiths we never know why, it builds no collective identification (we inspect the three heroes at the end separately, instead of unified). When the finale roars it's epic side-by-side postcard, it doesn't hold the audience emotionally, it just swallows us. It should cohere these states of mind, the two universes, and the military/science dichotomy, but instead we just get talked down to (visually). The joke's on us as the millions of other light-eyed 'versians' stare down (from what looks like Brad Bird's Tomorrowland) into our puny-minded uni-world and greet one (more?) who made the journey from our dimension to theirs. We're the bickering suckers at a graduation ceremony, having battled and shot our way towards the inevitable. That means it's been a comedy from the start, with humans managing only to add dark, violent melodrama to what should be revelatory events. Here's our species wide reaction that proves we're asleep.
Into the director's chair plops Nichols's stand-in, the young boy Alton, who basically directs the goings-on, guiding them through the ordeal, at first indirectly then directly (a nuance of gesture). In the film's key glyph we see he's even edited his own live surveillance so he can privately chat with Driver. He can read minds and satellites, and he's a broadcaster of clues. When the FBI show up at the Ranch where he's been fostered, the leader doesn't seem too surprised, and neither does the boy. Alton's so non-plussed, that once you realize he's not dumb, but smart, you realize he's engineering the whole thing like the surveillance, even tearing watchful satellites out of the sky. Any fear we build into him was moot. The film plays out as a metaphysical origin tale of a Superman, an immortal of the multiverse (is that Krypton we spy at the end?), self-guided home by playing humans in a game of road racing, plucking reference grids out of NSA data, getting the Ranch cult members to broadcast them in the sermons, Alton calls them all to battle. Yet we aren't offered any insight into Alton's nature, so the journey becomes emotionally invisible. It's some kind of religious satire by a director who writes the boy into a role-playing alter-ego, discarding the adults one-by-one into their too isolated faiths. That's how the film's final act submerges, we don't know who he is anymore than they do, and so we're forced to put either a religious mask or take a scientific POV to the goings-on. By the end of CE3K, Spielberg managed to blur science and religion so well, that we never cared to explain what it was we were looking at, we just dug it.
Instead the hand we're dealt is overplayed, bluffed ("what's kryptonite") right alongside undersold: all the adults and their submission to Alton. But to what end? Where do you go when you know too much about one theme and nothing about its partner?