His body is disintegrating. He is not of this world, and the strain of being here is killing him. He is not like us. He is not one of us. He can do amazing things.
He has one chance to return to his people. If he can make it to the rendezvous coordinates at the appointed time, he will live. He will leave us, and return to the world he belongs in. If he fails, he dies.
There are humans who care about him, aid him. But there are other humans chasing him. They want to use him, or study him.
Among these humans is a man who is motivated purely by curiosity. He doesn’t want to dissect the visitor, he just wants to understand. And, once he does understand, he will help.
That’s the plot of three different movies, each one about a different alien, about the humans who help the alien and the humans chasing the alien.
Of the three films that follow this plot, the pivotal one is John Carpenter’s 1984 forgotten masterpiece, STARMAN.
Carpenter delivered his first masterpiece two years earlier in 1982, the chilling, intensely watchable THE THING. It remains one of my favorite movies. THE THING opened a few weeks after the first movie to use this plot. Steven Spielberg’s E.T.. And E.T. crushed The Thing. It crushed a lot of movies that summer, all of which are more often watched and talked about now. It crushed BLADE RUNNER. Filmmakers in the early 80s hoped to use the new explosion in Science Fiction films to tell challenging stories. But really what everyone wanted was to spend two hours with a cute alien.
THE THING was John Carpenter’s attempt to make a Howard Hawks movie. Make a taught, masculine action thriller and for my money he got as close as you can get without being Howard Hawks. People talk about THE THING as a masterpiece of horror, but really I think it’s just a brilliant movie, forget the genre. If THE THING had been a hit, I think John Carpenter would have turned into one of our greatest directors.
But it wasn’t a hit. It cost a lot of money and it tanked. There’s a danger, when you fail to make enough money for the studio, that you’ll never get a second chance and Carpenter knew it. So when he got a second chance, he didn’t waste it. He hit another home run, just to show he could do it. He said “Oh, you want nice aliens? Fine.” And delivered STARMAN, a better movie than E.T. in every way. Except there’s a scene in E.T. where they play Dungeons and Dragons, that’s cool.
Carpenter described STARMAN as his apology to Hollywood for THE THING. “I’m sorry I scared the shit out of you, please let me keep making movies.” Alas, it was too late. STARMAN came in #30 at the box office that year and Carpenter never got a third chance to be a major director in Hollywood. Thanks, E.T..
E.T. is, whether he likes it or not, the progenitor of the plotline from Jeff Nichols’ new film MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Same story. The only innovation here is making the kid from E.T. the alien.
But Nichols didn’t want to make E.T. he wanted to make STARMAN. He talks about it in interviews. Nichols said he wanted to make a 1980s John Carpenter movie, as though “1980s John Carpenter” is a genre all its own. Which, maybe it is? He said he thought STARMAN was a good place to start.
He started there. . .but having watched MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. . .he doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere with it. STARMAN is, in all ways, a more interesting, rewarding movie. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL raises all the same questions as STARMAN and has just as many answers, they’re just not as interesting. In fact they’re baffling in their lack of imagination.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL opens on a black screen, a radio playing in what we learn is a motel room. Before we see anything, we hear a commercial for a Fort Worth Nissan dealership. So we know we’re in Texas. Visit www.nissan.com, so we know it’s the modern day.
But it doesn’t look like the modern day. Everyone in the film, the way they dress, the cars they drive, look like the 1970s just kept going. Given that he’s basically remaking a movie set 35 years ago, maybe that’s Nichols’ point. He likes stuff from back then, so he made his movie look like something from back then.
The film looks great. Like STARMAN, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL spends all it’s time on the highways and gas stations and back roads of the American south. This is Nichols’ territory and he makes it look amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s just kinda. . .boring.
With the possible exception of Adam Driver’s character, no one in this movie talks or behaves like a normal person. We spend the entire movie with Alton’s parents, but no one ever says “I love you.” No one has a nickname for him. No one ever calls him Champ, or Sport. Or Sniglefritz. Everyone’s so in awe of Alton, including his parents who should remember a time when their kid was more normal? Before he could hear and decode encrypted radio broadcasts in other languages? But they all treat him as though there was never a time when he was just their son. They act he was always an alien. It seems there was never a point when their lives were normal. It would have been nice to see a hint of a time before the movie started.
I loved the sentiment his father expresses. When Alton says “You don’t have to worry about me,” Michael Shannon says “I’ll always worry about you. That’s the deal.” He never says he loves his son, but he says he’ll always worry about him. “I like worrying about you,” he says. Maybe that’s Nichols’ point. Love means spending your life worrying about someone.
Michael Shannon is amazing to watch act but apart from look worried and desperate, he isn’t given anything else to do. Every scene he’s in is the same. You could mix them up, watch them in any order, still make sense. I wanted an arc. Some humanity? Something.
They’ve got Sam Shepard in this movie, who’s a brilliant actor and writer and we see him for like 2 minutes and that’s it. Crazy to waste him like that.
Adam Driver’s amused, detached curiosity is fun to watch and gosh I wish we’d gotten more of that. Hell, I think I’d have liked the movie more if the whole thing had been from his point of view. Probably the narrative wouldn’t sustain that. Too much of a good thing.
But unlike everyone else in the movie, every time he’s onscreen, I was happy, and entertained, and keen to see what happened next. He has more in common with Alton than either do with anyone else in the picture. He finds everyone, even the government he works for, amusing in their clueless sincerity and earnestness.
I was intensely interested in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL when I first heard about it. I haven’t seen Nichols’ other work, I didn’t really know what to expect, but the previews completely hooked me and I’ve spent the last two months spreading the gospel. I spent two and a half hours in traffic to see it in L.A. this weekend. I wanted to believe. But. . .I don’t think there was much to believe in.
STARMAN has an arc, the title character has an arc, the woman he kidnaps has an arc. Jeff Bridges is playing a complex character with a lot going on under the surface, Karen Allen is playing a complex character with a lot going on under the surface. They are each going through the same experience but from opposite directions and that makes it interesting. Every time Jeff Bridges’ alien talks, does anything, we learn something amazing, we see something amazing. The plot advances. His mystery expands and tantalizes and moves us. It’s a remarkably fertile script, each sequence shows us something new and unexpected. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is basically the same scene repeated for two hours. We never really learn anything about Alton. He does some amazing stuff, often using the same special effects from STARMAN, but it doesn’t move the plot forward or teach us anything about his character.
When the alien in STARMAN finally meets the government scientist who’s been curious about him the whole time, we get an amazing scene. It’s sentimental and obvious, but sometimes that’s what the movie demands.
That same scene in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has nothing. No information, no pathos. In STARMAN we learn something about the aliens and we learn something about ourselves. In MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, we just get a white room and a kid who can do tricks.
When Alton finally tells us what the hell is going on, it’s baffling. I don’t mean incomprehensible, I mean I was baffled this was their answer. “I don’t belong here,” yeah we guessed that. But, and this is important, NO EXPLANATION IS GIVEN AS TO WHY. Like, he is apparently Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon’s biological kid? But he’s also an alien from another world? What? There’s a profound lack of thought put into the explanation for why everything happens in this movie and I got the sense it was meant to be more mystical than science fictional. But regardless of whether it’s science or fantasy, the ending needs to pay off the rest of the film.
STARMAN has a GREAT explanation for everything that’s happening. Everything in STARMAN makes logical sense from the opening premise that mankind has been sending messages to aliens. Which is true, by the way, we have. We really made a spaceship and sent it out of the solar system with a message from Earth on it inviting any aliens who find it to come visit us. I’m not making that up, it’s real and everything in STARMAN logically follows from it.
Nothing in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL makes any sense and when we finally get the closing reveal showing us Alton’s world, it’s. . .it’s pretty disappointing. This is, apparently, the revelatory, religious, experience everyone’s been having when they look in Alton’s eyes and the only thing I can conclude is that they don’t have concept artists in Texas or Louisiana. Like, go buy an art book guys. Go look at a Yes album cover from the 70s. Google Syd Mead or Feng Zhu. Come on.
I felt the pressure STARMAN exerted on this film. Jeff Nichols says he wanted to make a movie like STARMAN but he clearly didn’t feel he could just remake that film. He didn’t think he could just lift that plot, he needed to make his own version. But his version’s explanation for everything is so weak as to completely deflate all the tension leading up to it.
When your whole movie is the mystery, the mystery needs to be damned good. If you’ve got great characters and dialog and we just love spending time with these people, then we won’t notice as much if the destination isn’t that interesting. But if the journey is flat and monotonous, you really need a hell of a destination to make it all worthwhile and MIDNIGHT SPECIAL lacks that.
STARMAN had great characters, quotable dialog, great journey, great destination. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL…doesn’t. Great actors! Movie looks beautiful! Otherwise….
There’s a scene at the end, the last shot in fact, I’m not going to spoil, that’s meant to send us out of the theater wondering. Leave us with a question. But after the events in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, I’m not particularly interested in engaging with that question. The movie didn’t give me any reason to believe there might be an interesting answer there.
It just made me want to go see STARMAN again. Maybe E.T.