Netflix's sci-fi library is quite broad. It covers movies from elaborate space operas to low-budget character studies. It's difficult to find a movie that's just pure, unadulterated, classic sci-fi while still being new and fresh. Luckily, one movie manages to do just that and also boasts a cast of familiar faces in roles they were born to play.
Midnight Special is a 2016 movie that on its own speaks for itself, but outwardly it's a love letter to 80s sci-fi films, especially ones where a small child is suddenly the center of an alien encounter, like E.T. or Flight of the Navigator. Unlike those films, however, Midnight Special leans on the "hiding from the government" angle, making it less of a feel-good family film about adventure, and more like a gripping conspiracy thriller of a fugitive on the run.
Unlike similar movies in the genre, Midnight Special starts after the government starts looking for him. There's no discovery of superpowers, no training montage, just a photosensitive small boy in blue-tinted swimming goggles being ushered inside a car by his father.
This boy, Alton, is wanted not only from the government but from the religious cult where he was raised, a cult whose sermons circle around the strange things Alton rattles off at random, supposedly speaking in tongues. However, a raid by the NSA reveals these "tongues" were not scripture in need of interpreting, they were government secrets under unimaginable levels of classification.
While Alton, his estranged dad Roy, and their friend Lucas try to escape the cult's cronies following them and the police tracking their every move, it's clear this is not just your average "special child" movie. When the Lucas stops driving when he witnesses a car crash, he flags down a state trooper who recognizes their car and reaches to report it when Lucas shoots him dead.
This tone continues throughout the cat and mouse game. Roy and Lucas wield shotguns, as do those seeking him, but not everyone is so violent. Eventually, Alton, Roy, and Lucas meet up with Sarah, a former cult member and Alton's mother, who provides support as Alton grows weaker.
In an age of family dramas, it's nice to see a fully supportive set of parents understand that maybe their child is an alien and they should help him figure that out. However, like in all good fugitive movies, not everything goes to plan, but the ending is heartbreaking, satisfying, and has a glorious sci-fi twist that evokes old utopian stories.
Aside from the innovative plot, the appeal of Midnight Special is the cast. Alton is played by Jaeden Martell, who between this, Book of Henry, and his star turn in It seems to have created a career on playing precocious children in decidedly adult situations. His dad, Roy, is played with equal strength and heart by Michael Shannon. Sarah, Alton's mom, is portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, who trades her usual Hollywood glamor for cultish dowdiness.
However, the breakout performance comes from Adam Driver, who plays the head NSA agent assigned to Alton's case. The year before he was thrust into villainous infamy by Star Wars, Driver delivers a complete polar opposite role, a bad guy who's just a bureaucrat trying to get things done in the right way and avoid a treason charge.
With an ensemble this talented, the story, though not entirely happy, feels completely earned, vulnerable, and human, making Midnight Special the definitive last word on the classic family sci-fi films of the past.
Midnight Special is now streaming on Netflix.