What happens when you make a film that’s reverential to both Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but fail to include the underpinnings of mundane, everyday normalcy that grounded those sentimental science-fiction classics? You end up with Jeff Nichols’ frustrating Midnight Special, the talented writer/director’s fourth film, and the first that he’s made for a major studio.

That the studio in question is Warner Bros. should come as little surprise once you see that Alton (St. Vincent’s Jaeden Lieberher), the pale, odd little 8-year-old at the film’s center, is gazing through blue swimming goggles at the pages of a DC comic book featuring the adventures of the Justice League of America. In a way, Nichols is helping to promote Warner’s current blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a launch pad for a series of DC Comics-derived films that will feature the Justice League and, the studio hopes, replicate Disney’s success with movies based on Marvel Comics characters.

Sitting in the back seat of a vintage muscle car, Alton looks up from his comic long enough to ask,
“What’s Kryptonite?” Kind-faced driver Lucas (Black Mass’s Joel Edgerton) stares into his rearview mirror, locking eyes with the boy as he answers: “The only thing that can kill Superman.” OK, this isn’t just a pandering bit of corporate synergy, but Nichols’ first nod to the fact that Alton is more than he seems. He too appears to have special powers, and he’s saddled with his own weakness: a deadly sensitivity to daylight.

But it’s not only the sun that worries Alton, Lucas and Roy, the silent, jutting-jawed man in the passenger seat (played by Michael Shannon, star of Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, two of Nichols’ previous features). An Amber Alert has just come over the car’s radio, and based on their reactions, we realize that these two men and their young charge are on the run.

According to the report, Alton has been abducted from a ranch in Texas—one that harbors its own secrets. Home to a religious cult, it’s been under FBI surveillance for the past few months, as the compound’s apocalypse-minded members have been stocking up on firearms. It seems that Alton is not only one of the many adopted children of the ranch’s leader, Brother Calvin (Sam Shepard, threatening in a cameo), but the revered figure at the center of the cult’s faith—and their protection from the “day of judgment,” which they seem to think is just days away.

Roy, Alton’s birth father, seems to think so too. Which may have something to do with why he has spirited his son away with help from his boyhood friend Lucas—a state trooper who’s willing to put his career and life on the line for the miraculous son of the man he hasn’t seen in years, driving them down back roads under the cover of darkness toward the boy’s mother, former ranch member Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). I’ll leave the particulars of their journey, narrow escapes and Alton’s increasingly inhuman abilities for you to discover, since Nichols’ screenplay delivers a slow drip of information, expanding his film’s mystery as fantastic things begin to happen.

Hot in pursuit of our heroes is Paul Sevier (Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Adam Driver), whom Alton correctly identifies as a Lead Operations Specialist for the National Security Agency, which clearly catches him off guard. “They only just gave me that title,” the newly promoted NSA agent reflexively responds. And once Paul witnesses some of the boy’s more otherworldly abilities for himself, he stares, slack-jawed, while proclaiming “Now that’s impressive.” However, unlike similar characters portrayed by Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters and Peter Coyote in E.T., Paul views the subject of his study not as an object of fascination, but as a weapon.

But is he? Unfortunately, just as he did in Take Shelter, Nichols pushes too far into an ending that may have been best left offscreen, unvisualized. The spell of that 2011 picture’s central mystery was broken once the ambiguity of Shannon’s character’s visions was made explicit. Here, some less-than-special effects undermine the sense of awe Nichols seemed to be going for, and Warner Bros. clearly hasn’t invested the kind of money that’s bankrolling Batman or Superman. More distressingly, there’s a shocking lack of personality to Nichols’ characters—a departure from his earlier pictures. Even though his actors gamely try to bring depth to their underwritten characters, the sketched-in details of their lives would feel far more at home on the page of a comic book. There’s only so much that Shannon, Driver and Dunst can communicate with wide-eyed wonder when Nichols lacks that Spielberg touch.

Midnight Special **1/2

Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, David Jensen, Paul Sparks, Sean Bridgers and Sam Shepard. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.

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