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'Midnight Special': Alton is the Antithesis to Superman

HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell It's fair to say I was pretty late to the party, and only recently saw Midnight Special. And once it had ended, the universal adoration for the film made complete sense. It's a gorgeous film about the uncertainty of parenthood, and the inevitability of the day that comes when that child no longer needs his mother and father.

Of course, the science fiction tale uses these themes and exaggerates them, but this is perhaps the most earnest of sci-fi films I've seen in recent times. It isn't caught up in the bold statements or CGI stakes, instead focusing intently on the story. In fact, it's convinced me single-handedly to seek out Jeff Nichols' other works, starting with Mud, and has left me anticipating Loving (which has yet to get a release date for Australia, so I'm in for a bit of a wait.)

While a number of films have been tossed around as inspiration for the film, one particular device Nichols used is the one that's perhaps the most on the nose, but not for the reasons you would expect. Because the film takes advantage of, and liberties with, the modern age of superheroes, it made complete sense that eight-year-old Alton's traveling companion was a Superman comic book. At one point, Alton asks the two adults in the driver and passenger seats what kryptonite is, to which they explain (which I won't bother with, because everybody knows what kryptonite is).

This is essentially a bluff or fake-out, even a red herring, because we never learn what Alton's kryptonite is. In that same sequence, Alton's father, Roy, played with grimace and dour duty by Michael Shannon, says that Alton needs to know what's real, and can't be caught up in what isn't. And thus, Nichols takes us on a journey on which we learn very little about where exactly Alton comes from, what his powers mean, how he procured them, and what his weaknesses might be. In this sense, it seems as though Nichols believes that none of those things are even within the parameters of the human mind's ability to grasp. Additionally, the unknown and the mysterious is the most fascinating to us, and as a species we're trapped trying to unravel them. So Nichols does exactly the opposite, and for those of us that need those details, this is one frustrating film.

Man of Steel poster
Man of Steel poster

Alton is the opposite of Superman. He, to our eye, possesses no kryptonite, because otherwise humanity would have a defense against him. Which means it'd have knowledge. And Nichols isn't interested in that. Alton is not a boy trying to find his place in an alien home, having come from some place else. Instead, he's a boy born on that alien planet, and his journey will take him to his rightful place. The people around Superman are those the character relies on most, as he tries to make sense of his place in the world. Alternatively, Alton is the only one who understands where he needs to go. The adults surrounding him are his vessel, escorting him to that safe place, but they are as lost as any of us in the audience. They are simply doing the right thing, as Superman would do.

Which is where another difference surfaces: Superman is driven by the need to do right. Alton has absolutely no interest in that. Indeed, he seems positively distant, unfazed by the coming departure from his parents. He knows that with them isn't where he belongs, but even so you'd expect a child to mourn the unsettling nature of what's to come. Instead, Alton is the one telling his parents not to worry.

The film is a counter-argument to the incessant need for modern audiences to understand everything they are witnessing. Where fans will pull apart their favourite works of science-fiction or fantasy online, or debate over superhero tidbits to no end, Midnight Special leaves literally no hints for people to mull over. It intelligently gives us everything it wants to give us, leaving us with questions we're not sure how to word. It offers that rare Superman film, the kind that surpasses all others on its simplicity, authenticity, and reliability. We know where it's going, but it's still surprising when it gets there.

In the end, we're left as lost as those within the government, but, for this writer at least, as content as Roy. Alton's story is only just beginning, but we'll likely never see it continue. And it doesn't need to be. We don't need his life and times. We don't need another Superman. Alton is good enough.

Posted in Midnight Special,

HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell

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