What is it about our cultural fascination with people who possess powers? We’re always either in awe of or in fear of those with enhanced abilities and you can draw a straight line between the stories that present these special individuals as saviors and heroes and those that show them as freaks to be feared. Indeed this is what the entire super hero genre is based on, with some (Captain America, Superman) being seen as heroes and others (X-Men in particular) being seen as freaks to be hunted and quarantined. Even outside that, though, popular culture clearly shows those with special powers as being largely outside “normal” society.
In the new movie Midnight Special we’re dealing with just such a case. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is a young boy who’s not like the rest of us. Believed to be some sort of savior by a group of religious zealots, Alton is taken by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) before anything bad happens. But that sets off a cross-country chase between them and the federal government, who want to find the boy and explore what it is he can do while Roy just wants to protect him and let him fulfill whatever it is Alton’s purpose is. Also starring in the movie are Adam Driver and Kristen Dunst among others.
There’s a very creepy vibe coming of the poster, which sets the stage for some sort of mystery. The boy who will form the center of the story sits in the middle of the shot, his eyes glowing from behind the goggles he’s wearing as he looks up from the comic he’s reading. The copy promises us “He’s not like us” in case the glowing eyes didn’t give that away. Above the title are the credentials of the director, which will appeal to a certain set of the audience who know him and his previous work.
We immediately dive into the suspense in the first trailer, which seems to setup kind of a misdirect as we hear about an Amber Alert for just the boy we eventually see with his dad. Then we cut to interviews being conducted as various people are asked about the boy and what he can do. Those powers are put on display throughout the trailer in various ways as he makes things glow, explode and so on. He seems to be part of a religious group that things he’s their savior.
This is…wow. It’s tremendously effective at setting up the suspense of the movie without actually spilling that much in terms of details. All we get are glimpses and hints and allusions to what is going on with the boy coupled with brief glimpses into those mysterious powers. This is a great setup to a movie that seems to have lots of secrets.
The second trailer is different from the first but hits many of the same beats. We see the child on the run from the authorities and interviews being conducted by those authorities to try and find the boy. This time though we get a much bigger sense of the hunt that’s going on, with scenes of military activity and coordinated activities. We also see more of the relationship between the people trying to keep Alton safe and how he tries to assure them that it’s going to be alright.
It’s just as good as the first and, as many people pointed out when it was released, sells the movie as a contemporary version of movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is a better comparison to draw than to some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies.
Online and Social
The main part of the official website shows a rotating series of stills from the movie that are overlaid with symbols and maps that identify with roles Alton plays: Savior, Son and Threat. Clicking each one doesn’t do much, just take you to another set of images and graphics along with some text that I assume is a quote of dialogue from the movie.
There’s a traditional menu at the top that starts with “Video,” which just has the one trailer that you should definitely watch again. Oddly, there are just two stills in the “Gallery.” Finally on the site there’s the “Story” section which gives you a great synopsis of that story.
The Facebook page for the movie has lots of countdown images and other promotional graphics along with links to some of the SXSW reviews and other activity from Austin. All of the promotional graphics here and on Twitter and Instagram are nicely consistent with the look and feel of the official site, which is cool.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I haven’t seen any TV spots or online ads but I have to believe there was at least some paid advertising done for the movie. It’s bold and original and I really think there must have been some, even if I’m not aware of specific examples.
Media and Publicity
After the first wave of publicity there was a lull but the movie popped back on everyone’s radar when it was announced it would premiere at SXSW this year. The cast talked about working with Nichols and about the story in general when the movie screened at Berlinale and Nichols talked about finding the right roles for the actors, including Shannon, he’s fond of working with.
A big feature in Wired really dove into Nichols’ artistic process, his aspirations as a director, how he challenges himself and more, including how this movie represents something much bigger in terms of scale than the smaller, more intimate features he’s made previously. Throughout the publicity cycle the press and even Nichols himself would draw the connection between and inspiration the director got from the movies of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers he grew up with.
This is the second week in a row we’ve seen an original science fiction story hit theaters, the first being last week’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. And if nothing else it’s cool to see these movies not only get made but get significant releases. This one doesn’t have the full-featured ARG component the previous movie did but it’s still a solid and nicely visually consistent campaign on display here.
The main thing that’s being sold in this campaign is the mystery, which is part of the relationship between father and son. It’s easy to see why so many people have drawn comparative lines between this movie and the early works of Spielberg since the themes Nichols is drawing on seems to be similar to what Senor Spielbergo was putting out in the 70s and early 80s. What the campaign is selling is a story where the special power of the main character is a MacGuffin acting as a hook for the real point is to explore the power of familial love and responsibilities, no matter what the cost or consequences. It looks entrancing and moving and I can’t wait to see it.