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Catch Him If You Can: ‘Midnight Special’ and Steven Spielberg’s Disciples

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Welcome to the Church of Spielberg. Grab a pew up front. Tonight’s sermon comes from Jeff Nichols, the director of the new sci-fi movie Midnight Special.

You want a kid separated from his family (E.T., Empire of the Sun)? Midnight Special has one in the form of Alton, a goggle-wearing boy with amazing powers. You want a dweeby-but-heroic bureaucrat (Close Encounters of the Third Kind)? Yup, that’s here, too, in the form of Adam Driver’s Sevier. Midnight Special even channels Spielberg’s affection for suburbia. There’s a big scene at a gas station — no spoilers — and, I swear, the light emitted by the signs will comfort anyone who’s found themselves reading their phone while they gas up at midnight.

For us children of the ’80s, seeing Spielberg rebooted by the likes of Nichols and J.J. Abrams is strange. For one thing, Spielberg’s movies (according to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) marked the end of the highbrow cinema of the ’70s. Now, we tend to think of E.T. and its ilk as sacred texts that can save us from the current CGI crapfest. “I’m a kid of the ’80s,” Nichols told The Verge, “so going to the movies meant going to see a Spielberg film.”

That’s the way the movies are made. But something has also changed in the way we talk about movies. Two decades ago, blabbermouths like Quentin Tarantino taught us to see every film as an homage to another film. A lens flare is the new Easter egg. Directors realized this, and began to eagerly offer up their source lists. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Starman, they were my inspirations,” Nichols told EW. “This is my sci-fi chase film.” Before any one of us knows whether it’s any good, Midnight Special becomes a kind of wine pairing with the movies of our youth.

A cinematic father like Spielberg has many children. Abrams is really more of an auteur of marketing than of movies; what excites him is the sell. (See the usual mystery-box jive that came with 10 Cloverfield Lane.) What excites Nichols is filmmaking. As he admitted in several interviews, he had to direct three movies before he figured out how to acquire a big budget and push from a major studio. (Warner Bros. is releasing Midnight Special.)

And for all of Midnight Special’s Spielbergian gloss, there are a lot of differences. Nichols has little of Spielberg’s ability to craft an organic father-son vibe. He can do Uncle Steve’s awe, but not his tenderness. Midnight Special isn’t exciting in the conventional, blockbustery sense, either — it’s not meant to be. As Nichols told The Verge, he took a spot in the movie where the audience would expect a big chase scene and stuck in … a traffic jam. Maybe he didn’t want all of us thinking, “OK, let’s see how the guy does the Raiders of the Lost Ark chase, the Duel chase.”

In a way, it’s comforting. Midnight Special is a reboot of Spielberg’s wonder but not a rip-off of his actual films. Nichols has studied the masters and accepted the comparisons, but forged his own path toward the supernatural light. Amen.

This piece originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.