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‘Midnight Special’ is a sci-fi drama worth seeing

He wears night goggles in the car’s back seat and reads comic books by flashlight. There’s a reason for that. In that car, they can only travel by night. No matter how much of a sweet 8-year-old boy he is, daylight punishes his eyes. And too, he’s capable of shooting murderous rays of light through them. And causing earthquakes at a moment’s notice.

He’s also capable, at a gas station, of calling ships from somewhere out in deep space, to rain angry fire bombs on to the tarmac.

Alton Meyer is clearly not like other 8-year-old boys. A religious cult thinks of him as a prophet. He gives them sets of numbers that turn out to be geographical coordinates for locations the NSA is very, very interested in. The cult leader is played by Sam Shepard, the actor/playwright whose harrowing smile is nothing if not sinister.

Everybody, it seems, wants to get his hands on Alton.

Which is why his father and Lucas – one of his father’s oldest friends in the world – scoop him up and go on the lam in a prescribed fugitive attempt to get him where he needs to go.

Nancy Grace instantly turns Alton’s father into that week’s favorite cable news child kidnapping story.

The name of the movie is “Midnight Special.” It’s directed by Jeff Nichols and stars Michael Shannon, the remarkable film presence who has been in all four Nichols films (only one of which – “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey – made much of a dent in area theaters).

“Midnight Special” is a film that, more than anything else, spends its time giving us close-ups of Shannon’s strong wide-eyed face as it is stricken with suppressed worry and melancholy.

Father and son and Dad’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) drive around the Southwest ditching cars and evading everyone – cops, cultists, NSA. They have a destination but, as with almost everything else in the powerfully minimalist sci-fi drama, we have to discover what it is slowly.

At one of the places they go, Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst, unsually subdued) is waiting for them. She and Dad are long divorced but united completely now in love and worry over their son – the one they’re about to lose and yet know they must.

“Midnight Special” is always tense even though it’s never in a hurry to tell us anything. It’s too busy showing us a worried and protective father, his oldest friend the state trooper and a little boy who terrifies everyone – even those who love him.

What is going on here? Alton explains: There’s another world on top of this one. We never see it, except when it drops firebombs on gas stations. That’s where Alton – whose eyes can be death rays – knows he belongs. It’s where he knows that he’s soon expected. Or, as he says, “I think people live there. I think they’re like me.”

One of the more wonderful things that has happened in American independent film of the past 10 years is that we have seen an entirely different kind of science fiction movie – one of exceptional intelligence and cleverness necessitated by what is sometimes minimal financing. Think of “Another Earth,” “I Origins” and “Ex Machina.” This is science fiction that gives sci-fi a good name rather than the gaudy, comic books. CGI extravagazas that deaden brain cells. This is intimate sci-fi for grown-ups.

“Midnight Special” is the latest and one of the best. It’s about a close encounter of a wholly different kind. One whose drama could almost be attributed to two sets of eyes – one, the powerful, haunted and resolute eyes of a loving and protective father and the other the dangerous, unpredictable eyes of the son who is from another world entirely.

It is inevitable, I suppose, that Nichols’ success in these small films will elevate him into another cinematic world.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

review

3.5 stars (Out of four)

Title: “Midnight Special”

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton

Director: Jeff Nichols

Running time: 111 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for violence and sci-fi weirdness and intensity.

The Lowdown: Father and son go on the lam to save the otherworldly boy.