USE YOUR IMAGINATION! This line is exclaimed by Frank Walker (George Clooney) as a young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) relentlessly tries to undercut a point he is making with fact based scenarios. It’s also the line that I really want to scream at critics of this movie. While this movie should not have garnered awards buzz or anything of that sort, it didn’t, in my estimation, deserve the near universal panning it received. The villain was clichéd, there was a lull in the middle, and one scene in a main street comic book store was mostly a big ‘hey look we have star wars now!’ poster for Disney. However the message of the movie was extremely important and probably overlooked because it was simple, we need some hope! We need some optimism, andmost importantly, we can’t look anywhere but inside ourselves and our society to find it.
Midnight Special is a much smaller film from indie darling director Jeff Nichols and is much darker in tone but ultimately drives home a similar point. There movie starts with the game already a foot as Roy (the brilliant-as-always Michael Shannon) has kidnapped a boy with special powers. The main through plot is mostly straight forward. This boy is special, everyone wants a piece of him, and his parents, even though they lose him at the end, are only trying to protect him and do what is right. The interesting overlay however is that this boy is not a mutant, not an alien, but seemingly part of a humanity that exists right here on earth, we just can’t see them. Maybe it’s an alternate dimension, or maybe they exist on a ‘higher plane’. His abilities are not some X-men-esque amplified ability, and some power which great but not really understood. At the end (spoiler alert) you see Roy desperately staring up at the sky trying to get any sense of the power he witnessed when his son crossed over to this other realm, and for a second before cutting to black, you see just a hint of a glow in his eyes.
Thematically both these movies address the idea that inside of us, and indeed all around us, lies the world we are looking for, if we can just work hard enough to see it. In Tomorrowland it is captured more literally. We have all the artists and scientists and dreamers and architects we need. The problem is we don’t give them the space, resources, and political and societal breathing room to do the great things they are capable of. The answers are here if we are willing to give them the time to develop. In Special its more esoteric, with the idea of greatness represented as something inside of us that we must fight for, that we must struggle with and develop.
As a kid growing up in the 80’s, the movies that excited me often looked to the stars. I can think of two, the Explorers and Flight of the Navigator, that I watched repeatedly that set the horizon of what was possible far beyond our blue-green home. Of course Star Wars and Star Trek and many other also painted varying visions of how once we got off this planet then humanity would really begin to blossom. Our modern blockbusters as well are always littered with personal achievement that seems to be rooted in something outside or other worldly making all the difference. Its a consistent drum beat that if only we could find that alien blood/su
per serum/artifact/widget/whatever from some other magical place, we could overcome the challenges of our day. (Side note: this is why Batman is so supremely popular, he survives only on his own merit, and angst). Tomorrowland and Midnight Special dare to say we don’t need any of that, because we have not even begun to understand our own potential yet. Greatness does not exist in some far flung land, but rather just outside our grasp, and if we squint hard enough we just might be able to make it out.
These two movies are not alike in many ways, and I don’t know if either would be considered important on their own. Tomorrowland is something that hasn’t been seen much in recent years, and that’s a comparative failure by a Disney major release. Midnight Special got more love from the critics mostly because of Nichols and Shannon, and while Special may be critically a better movie, it was also a lot slower and lacked some of the fun present in Tomorrowland. Read together, they tell an inspiring tale of human potential desperately need in our world today.
Scene of note: In Tomorrowland when they fight the robots in the ‘Blast From The Past’ store, one way to read that scene is that it was actually more intentional than just nostalgia, because it really was more than Star Wars, lots of other science fiction gets ‘destroyed’ in the fight. It’s as if the film is telling us that all those stories are deep fiction, what we are suggesting is that this is light fiction, fiction that really could come to pass, because its about optimism and self empowerment.