Midnight Special is an E.T. riff that's as much Stephen King as Steven Spielberg

But it could use a little more King-style expansion

Writer-director Jeff Nichols enjoys his mysteries. His down-to-earth movies Shotgun Stories (2007) and Mud (2012) both deal specifically with unfathomable choices, and the people dutifully struggling to make sense of them and live with the fallout. But Nichols’ strange, winning 2011 film Take Shelter goes beyond the mysteries of the human heart, and into a more cosmic kind of conundrum. As a protagonist played by Michael Shannon (also the star of Shotgun Stories) seems to be receiving prophetic warnings about a coming calamity, Nichols leaves viewers wondering for the entire film whether he’s mentally ill, or really tuned into something beyond himself. The ambiguous ending suggests an answer, without telling viewers what it means—it’s the kind of wrap-up that doesn't provide closure, so much as it unlocks a dozen new doors.

Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, leaves even more portals of possibility standing wide open over the course of its 111-minute run. The film is made almost entirely of mysteries, virtually none of which are resolved by the final scenes. It often feels as though Nichols is dropping viewers in on the last episode of a TV miniseries, and letting them guess what happened in previous installments. The approach makes for a fleet, relentless movie that doesn’t bog down in exposition and explanation. But some of the story gaps feel more like lost opportunities than artful elision.

Midnight Special opens mid-action, with a man named Roy (Michael Shannon, yet again) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) hustling Roy's young son Alton (St. Vincent co-star Jaeden Lieberher) across the country under cover of night. The police consider Roy a kidnapper and a fugitive, and he and Lucas are armed and on edge. But Alton seems curiously calm with the trip. He's a small, solemn child who can't bear sunlight and hides from the world under tinted swim goggles and noise-cancelling headphones. Even before the story starts to delve into what's strange and special about Alton, he comes across as adult and otherworldly, another in a long line of uncanny cinematic children. His alienness only briefly drops into recognizably human joy when the road trip reaches his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Soon, she's joined the fleeing group in an effort to get to a specific set of geographical coordinates by a specific date, for reasons kept foggy until deep into the film.

Most of the mystery of Midnight Special comes in the hazy backstory. Alton is a messiah figure for a church of eerily placid devotees who take the numbers he recites during his periodic seizures as a form of holy scripture. Their leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) adopted Alton a few years ago, and believes he will soon usher the members of "the Ranch" into some undefined next phase of salvation. Why did Roy legally cede Alton to Calvin in the first place? How and when did the Ranch form? Why did Sarah "abandon" Alton, and what did Roy have to do to get him back? These aren't minor questions: They hang heavily over the story, awaiting resolution that never comes, and suggesting not just a bigger story, but a more personal and human one. The Ranch alone is the kind of fascinating, socially suggestive splinter cult that could fuel an entire season of The Leftovers. And the film doesn't just sideline the Ranch's members, it almost entirely dismisses them as players early on. The idea of Alton having his own dedicated religion is powerful, but it winds up having little weight, and even less consequence.

The more substantial threat in Midnight Special is the federal government, which is after Alton for its own reasons. Early on, the FBI's pursuit of Roy and Lucas takes on a familiar tone: Nichols was openly inspired by "sci-fi films from the ’80s—€”specifically government sci-fi chase films like Starman, Close Encounters, and E.T." And Alton does feel remarkably like an earthbound version of E.T., right down to the way he huddles under a blanket as his human protectors chivvy him from place to place. But Midnight Special also echoes 1984's Firestarter, with inimical government forces running down a father and child to seize control of the child's eerie powers. Midnight Special posits Alton as a Jesus figure, the calm center of a political storm, complete with devoted followers, an inner circle of disciples, and abilities that inspire reverence in some and alarm in others. The parallels become clearer as the story unfolds—€”Alton has his own Judas in the form of a former follower, and sympathetic NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) serves as his Pontius Pilate, deciding whether to wash his hands of the situation or make a personal commitment.

Midnight Special

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Religious themes aside, though, Nichols draws on both the paranoia of those 1980s films — the feeling that the government is a largely faceless, monolithic force, out to control and suppress all forms of wonder — and on Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster filmmaking rhythms. Midnight Special isn’t a bombastic or emphatic film: It’s a subdued indie version of a blockbuster, more Monsters than Godzilla, more Safety Not Guaranteed than Back To The Future. Nichols throws in the trappings of 1980s blockbusters, from car chases to special-effects sequences, but his tensest scene involves Roy and his allies sitting in a nearly unmoving car, waiting in a long line. This is often a patient movie, given an edge by pointedly oppressive night-time cinematography and a murky underwater score. Cinematographer Adam Stone has worked on all Nichols’ films to date, and composer David Wingo also scored Mud and Take Shelter; together, they’ve helped give Nichols’ films a cohesive look and feel that goes beyond their consistently grim tones. Once again, the three men have produced a richly textured story that’s more about character emotions than about the life-or-death battles those emotions push them toward.

But the emotions here feel shallower than in Nichols’ past work, because there’s so little sense of where they’re coming from. For all Roy’s protective urges toward Alton, for all the way he cradles him defensively and fights like a papa bear to protect him, it’s still unclear whether he thinks of the kid more a beloved child in need of protection, as the savior the ranch makes him out to be, or something even less accessible and more ineffable. This is heady, heavy stuff: a man who’s alienated from his own strange, powerful child, and trying to navigate his duties as both a father and a moral man anyway. But compared to the shifting sympathies and tangled, difficult loyalties in Nichols’ previous three films, Midnight Special feels relatively simplistic. Shannon, normally a deep and reliable dramatic actor, plays his role as if he’s biting down hard on metal, and trying not to show that it hurts. The character’s stoicism and uncompromising forward drive don’t allow enough nuance to leak in around the edges. Dunst and Driver have basic story-function roles that barely get to breathe, and Shepard lacks the screen time to clarify who he is and why he’s important. Of all the cast, Edgerton strangely comes across the best, largely because his character is the most idiosyncratic and unusual: a state trooper dragged along on the quest out of personal loyalty and an experience he can’t express or explain.

At least Midnight Special’s outer conflicts are well established. The film moves effortlessly, with plenty of tense thrills and surprise reveals. It’s relentless, but rarely rushed. The action is terse, and in one unexpected case, breathless and terrifying. The protagonists are instantly sympathetic, and Nichols keeps their abilities and their efforts more believable and accessible than the outsized heroics that usually make summer action movies feel like bloated fantasies. As unreal as the situation here is, Midnight Special keeps the focus tight enough, and the choices comprehensible, enough, to ground its world in a necessary reality. And Stone guarantees that it’s a beautifully shot reality, crisply realized even in the darkest, deadest hours of night.

Midnight Special

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In spite of Nichols’ inspirations, though, the approach isn’t so much Steven Spielberg as Stephen King. Midnight Special's premise is the kind of setup King loves—the ineffable supernatural being hunted down by the greedy mundane. The increasingly strained heroes and villains. The devout religious practitioners who’ve substituted faith for reason, and an authority figure’s word for their own moral judgment. The compromised government flak who’s more open to possibility than he seems. This could easily pass for one of the best and most controlled King adaptations on film, if only he’d actually written it.

But Stephen King’s style generally includes copious backstory, and for much of its run, Midnight Special gets along without it. That initially comes across as a daring choice: Too much exposition would just bog down the story, and too much explanation can kill the imagination. But there comes a point where Roy and Sarah’s actions and motives in the present just don’t seem to jibe with what little we know about the past, and where the mystery of how Alton happened distracts from the mystery of what he’s becoming. Midnight Special is the rare action movie that could stand a few more pauses for reflection, and the rarer Jeff Nichols movie that works more on pacing, energy, and excitement than on character dynamics. It’s an effective thrill ride, but it leaves a haunting shadow of the bigger, better movie it might have been.

Midnight Special arrives in theaters on Friday, March 18.