In many ways Midnight Special (Nichols, 2016) is a remake of Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But director Jeff Nichols makes one important change that gives the story a deeper meaning. Where Spielberg has aliens, Nichols never says exactly what the other “people” are who have contacted his film’s protagonist, the 8-year old boy Alton Meyer. In fact, calling them “people” and revealing them to live among us — hidden behind a veil of perception but everywhere nearby “watching” — implies that they are not extraterrestrial life forms but are something else entirely. Maybe they are a more highly evolved species, what humans may someday become. Maybe they are humans from the future, traveling back in time. Or maybe — given the film’s opening context in a religious cult and the fact that the hidden “people” finally appear as balls of light — they are spirits, gods or angels.
A “fairy story” in the Tolkien tradition, Midnight Special is attempting to re-frame our perception and cause us to see our world in a new way. When the other “world” is revealed, we see that it is built around our world. The other civilization’s architecture is built on top of, right next to, and even interwoven with our architecture, reminiscent of the way an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright would design his buildings to integrate into the natural landscape of rivers and hills. So just as a tree or a river lives its life along side of human civilization without any awareness of us, so Midnight Special suggests that we are living our lives alongside another civilization that we have no awareness of. The film opens our eyes so that we can encounter our everyday lives as if they are surrounded by this sort of hidden reality.
As Tolkien puts it, fantasy literature serves the important purpose of “recovery”– the “return and renewal of health … regaining of a clear view”. Fantasy allows us to “be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity” and to see “things as we are (or were) meant to see them. This is how Midnight Special works, too. Like Interstellar (Nolan, 2014), Midnight Special uses science fiction to talk about spiritual realities under the guise of “other dimensions” (something both films stole from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and to a lesser degree C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy). If we can use speculative science to imagine other dimensions communicating with us, why not think of speaking in tongues or divine revelation in the same way?
And by opening up this imaginative possibility, Midnight Special aims to heal the fundamental anxiety of human existence. Alton’s parents worry about his health and safety; the government worries that Alton is a “weapon” with access to classified information and nuclear technology; and the cult at the beginning of the film imagines Alton’s visions as a sign of the end of the world.
Indeed, when we finally see the other world for ourselves, it does in fact look like nothing so much as the biblical book of Revelation’s “New Jerusalem” coming down to earth. But Nichols presents the otherworldly city as an image of hope for the future, transforming the standard approach to the apocalypse in the same way Spielberg transformed Hollywood’s standard War of the Worlds image of alien invasion from terrifying to beautiful in Close Encounters and E.T.. This, indeed, is much closer to the way the Bible talks about the New Jerusalem:
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:2-4)
In the final shot of Midnight Special, Alton’s father is imprisoned in a mental institution, gazing happily into the brightness of the sunrise with the knowledge that his son is out there watching him. It is a new day, and now he knows that the gods have made their home with us, just behind the surface of our world, in a new civilization already growing in the background. His (and our) experience of the ordinary world has been transformed, imbued with mystery and even holiness: “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).