In the movie Midnight Special, a kid with psychic powers is on the run from the authorities. Well that’s original.
It’s also the plot of the hit 2016 TV series Stranger Things, which was broadcast about the same time Midnight Special was in the cinema. It’s the plot of a large number of books and movies you could list (just as the moaners on IMdb have done), going back to Alexander Key’s Escape To Witch Mountain at least.
But this, as I’ve mentioned before, is a misunderstanding of the rules of genre literature.
Nobody complains as vociferously that all vampire books, movies and TV series have basically the same premise. That when you’ve seen one spy thriller you’ve seen them all. That superhero literature just keeps regurgitating a stock set of scenarios, over and over ad nauseum. Or that there’s nothing—literally, nothing—that you can say in a love story that hasn’t been said a thousand times before.
Science fiction has always recycled the bulk of its stories, and it always will. Even within the genre, critics seem content to cut slack for stories about time travel paradoxes, all of which are fundamentally the same. And yet the perception is that SF ought to be original because SF is the genre of original thought.
If only that were actually the case. We sit on a vast weight of literature. Show me something you think is original and I’ll be certain to find four or five direct antecedents. That’s why I’m such a hit at parties.
As a writer, I try to be original myself, but I know it’s impossible. Even if I come up with a crazy new idea, I can be pretty sure someone else has already used it. And the retort to the armchair moaner is obvious: you should do better.
The other reason to defend a movie like Midnight Special is that we desperately need movies like Midnight Special. For the moment, I’m going to break my own rules and include psychic powers in my definition of science fiction, which in reality I certainly do not believe should be the case. Science fiction is no more the literature of psychic powers than it is of talking dogs. Though it is, actually, also largely the literature of talking dogs.
In the December 2016 issue of SFX—a magazine devoted not just to the science fiction genre, though even its own writers seem unclear on the point—an editorial gushes that “SF lit is pushing more boundaries than ever.”
What, really? Than the Golden Age? Than the New Wave? Even than the cyberpunk years? Right now, more boundaries are being pushed by SF? Which ones, exactly? Or have you never read J.G. Ballard’s 1968 story ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’?
I was lucky, as a child, that the first SF anthology I ever picked up was Michael Moorcock’s 1968 collection The Traps Of Time, in its 1970 paperback reaching-hands cover. I still have a copy of that book (though sadly in the embarrassingly awful 1979 naked woman cover, the last time it was in print) and I still dip into it when I want to be inspired.
In this single 200-page volume, among other things, are Brian Aldiss’s brain-aching story of temporal dislocation, ‘Man In His Time,’ Ballard’s icky oedipal nightmare ‘Mr. F. Is Mr. F,’ Langdon Jones’s classically constructed apocalypse ‘The Great Clock’, Jorge Luis Borges’ mesmerizing ‘The Garden Of Forking Paths’ and David Masson’s truly wondrous ‘Travellers’ Rest,’ which still counts as the most extraordinary short story I’ve ever read.
And I didn’t even mention Alfred Jarry’s ‘How To Construct A Time Machine’ which may even, in this very volume, have inspired Hawkwind’s space rock ode to a bicycle ‘Silver Machine,’ which shows just how far this work can spread.
One slim volume of stories about time. A narrow subject, a genre within a genre, picked by an anthologist with an agenda concerning a certain style of genre writing he wanted to promote, but one that is exploded outwards in all directions. I plow desperately through as many new SF anthologies as I can, and even in the doorstop depths of the Gardner Dozois yearly summaries I’m lucky to find a single story that ranks up there with the likes of The Traps Of Time.
SFX also has an agenda, of course. It talks up the genre in order to sell its magazine. Dying genre, dying magazine, out of work editors. But when everything’s so dizzy-dizzy positive it gets as wearying as the fawning movie reviews, which sprinkle five stars liberally at the trash we’ll be groaning about in a matter of months.
But here’s the truth of it. SF literature is in an appalling state. The SF short story dried up decades back, and the SF novel is close to collapse. The fashion for military and space opera disguises a lit hidebound in its own boundaries. If it wasn’t for the occasional movie and TV series, science fiction would be extinct.
And here, of course, I am talking about SF in its narrower sense, rather than the larger SFX landscape of high fantasy, superheroes, zombie apocalypses and, yes, psychic powers.
In a situation this poor, I’ll take what I can. I’ll take Midnight Special because it is the best genre movie I’ve seen all year. And that’s not saying much, since the only other SF movie of note in 2016 was the awkwardly constructed and decidedly minor 10 Cloverfield Lane. (I haven’t seen Arrival yet, but I have high hopes.)
There were others, such as the childish excesses of Star Trek Beyond and Independence Day: Resurgence which squandered an interesting alien (closely modeled on the original Cloverfield, as far as I could see) on propping up an unnecessary franchise. But enough about them.
Now that Person Of Interest has ended things are just as poor for SF TV. We’re left, among a morass of kidstuff fantasies, with the excruciating sitcom Orphan Black and the one-note Fight Club reinvention Mr. Robot which wore out its premise during season one and now seems to have become yet another zombie series. At least, it’s running on dead.
By no means is Midnight Special perfect. My feeling is that director and writer Jeff Nichols has yet to mature into his craft. It shares the same weaknesses as his previous quasi-genre movie Take Shelter, chiefly of being too slight a story for its scale. But Nichols commands a budget capable of hiring a clutch of superb actors, and that makes all the difference.
Kirsten Dunst as Sarah, the psychic boy’s mother, Michael Shannon as Roy, his father, and in particular the always terrific Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a state trooper now protecting the boy—all the leads are superb.
Though the boy Alton himself is a cypher, it’s how his otherness has ripped his family apart and now brought it reluctantly back together that forms the heart of the tale. Every scene is on edge, as if we are viewing people who have already been driven past the brink, and have somehow survived and pulled themselves back together just long enough to do what must be done before exhaustion and shock overcome them.
The movie’s finest moment, and in my opinion the finest moment in genre cinema in recent memory, comes half way through the movie, when Alton reveals his true nature to the three adults. They’re holed up in yet another grim motel, and though they think things are bad they’re about to get infinitely worse.
“There’s a world built on top of ours,” Alton explains, struggling, as all the characters struggle, to express himself through the shouting silence of his incomprehension. “People live there. I think they’re like me.”
“They’re like you?’ Sarah quizzes him. Alton nods. “Yes, I think so.”
Sarah smiles. “I understand,” she says. From her smiling face we shift to Roy in the doorway, who also begins to smile, and then to Lucas, who manages his own smile. Nothing more is said, but the smiles express an infinity of reassurance. These, then, are the good guys, and Alton’s heading home.
Other genres could, feasibly, have included a scene so small and human, so beautifully touching. But no other genre could have made it simultaneously so far-reaching and profound. This is what good SF does. This is what keeps me wading through slurry in the hope of grasping something great, just once in a while.