The current vogue for Spielberg/Lucas fan fiction continues. After Jurassic World and JJ Abrams' recent endeavours, the baton - or pen - now passes to Jeff Nichols, who gave us one of the great American features of the decade with 2011's Take Shelter, that brooding rural parable that served as a lightning rod for any number of contemporary concerns. Midnight Special, which seems to exist in the same universe as that early success, might be claimed as E.T. with family station wagons in place of bikes, but its real achievement lies in the way Nichols navigates his own path between those twin titans of blockbuster cinema: it's a film that generates the pleasures, and the occasional electric chill, of seeing a resonant yarn being unravelled before us by a storyteller approaching the big leagues.
It opens with two men and a young boy on the run through Texas - why isn't clear, although TV bulletins reporting the kid as a missing person cast at least half a shadow over his keepers' motives. Gradually, we learn that this party is being pursued not just by the authorities, but by altogether shadier forces: the tentacles of a religious cult based in these parts and overseen by pastor Sam Shepard. That's one early revelation; another is that the boy has powers, rendered as a rudimentary visual effect - a beam of white light that emerges from his eyes, such as seen in any number of naff sci-fi movies a wannabe filmmaker might have absorbed in the home-video era. (Bonus for any Spielberg wannabes: it's an almost instant lens-flare generator.) It should, in the context of the modern multiplex's detailed and filigreed VFX work, be laughable; instead, we become more concerned as to what exactly this "gift" represents.
Nichols makes especially clever use of actors who might get us to believe in the reality of this situation. He can rely upon the terse Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, as the boy's handlers, to stay tightlipped as to their characters' motives until we're a good distance down the road; he also brings out more of the profound yet barely articulated sadness Kirsten Dunst first revealed in Melancholia. His biggest casting coup, however, comes in the role of the middle-aged heavy Shepard's preacher sets on the boy's tail: veteran character actor Bill Camp, who has the face of a 1970s journeyman - a George Kennedy or J.T. Walsh - and doesn't look entirely out of place amid the nondescript backroads and banal suburban spaces the pursuit winds through. This could be any missionary, passing through to spread the word of the Lord.
That's another kind of storytelling, of course, and Midnight Special gains a dimension from its considered playing-off of reality against fantasy. It's there in the comic books Edgerton gives the kid to distract him from danger ("he needs to know what's real," tuts Shannon); it's there in the swimming goggles the boy is fitted with, either to keep the light in, or the world out. As in Take Shelter, Nichols is wondering whether such enhanced vision - such acute sensitivity to the possibilities of this world - is a blessing or a curse; when those among us who resolve to light the way are hounded as this kid is hounded, perhaps we're all better off keeping our blinkers on.
As a result, Midnight Special might be approached as another of 2016's notable parenting parables, yet there's a marked difference between Spielberg (who's generally regarded the family as a benign, cohesive entity) and his successors, who deem family dynamics worthy of closer, more critical study, as one might study extraterrestrial activity. As in Room, the child comes to represent a fragile form of hope; what this unusually quiet and thoughtful chase movie is preoccupied with is how we protect our young, and what it is we're protecting them from.
What that is exactly is best left for Nichols to reveal, and for you to discover for yourself, but given that Midnight Special takes in religious extremism, surveillance satellites falling from the sky and muttered talk of some nuclear threat, it soon becomes clear that the writer-director has more on his mind than simply shuttling everyone from A to B. Lucas and Spielberg were Californian baby boomers, born into a moment of relative prosperity and security, and who spent their formative years of the cinema. Nichols grew up in Texas, home of the doomy weather warning, and appears to have seen a lot more bad news across a greater variety of media.
There are losses and limitations that come with that sensibility, notably a reluctance to venture a joke, lest it let light in on the gloom and expose any absurdity in the premise. Yet there are considerable gains, too: a form of fiction that brings us closer to the emotions we feel when we stay up to watch the nightly news - which addresses the grown-ups in the audiences as well as the young. (It is at once the year's most apposite 12A, and an antidote to the snarky escapism of Messrs. Abrams and Whedon.)
If the closing moments lose a little in making our harried young hero's visions explicit, building CG bridges between this world and the next - scenes that can't help but recall last year's grand folly Tomorrowland - the rest of Midnight Special proves deeply engaged with the issue of what it will take to get us there in one piece. Bracket it with this season's The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane as another utterly fascinating document of the dying of the Obama light, and a moment when America fears itself, its children and all its tomorrows to be very much under attack.
(MovieMail, April 2016)
Midnight Special screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm.