I’m struggling to tap out a half-assed review of Jeff NicholsMidnight Special (Warner Bros., 3.18), which I saw on the Warner Bros. lot yesterday afternoon. Struggling because my flight to Seoul is leaving pretty soon. I’m as much of a fan of Nichols and his two standout films, Take Shelter and Mud, as the next guy, but Midnight Special (Warner Bros., 3.18) definitely underwhelms.

It’s a grim, grubby paranoid road-chase thing — a kind of shitkicker film about peeling rubber and hiding out in shitty motels and dodging the authorities — mixed in with doses of Starman, E.T. and Close Encounters.

It doesn’t tell you very much but bit by bit you gradually piece it together, but for my money it felt like too much work for too little payoff. I actually found Nichols’ story irritating. When it ended I was muttering to myself, “That’s it?” As I driving back over the hill I was saying to myself, “You can’t hit a homer every time at bat.”

Nichols’ script is about an eight-year-old alien (Jaeden Lieberher) who’s trying to reunite with an alien community that’s been keeping tabs on our affairs and behavior.  Like the Trafalmadoreans did in Slaughterhouse Five and Michael Rennie‘s alien fellows did in The Day The Earth Stood Still.  

The action is about the kid’s father (Michael Shannon), mother (Kirsten Dunst) and the father’s friend/accomplice (Joel Edgerton) trying like hell to deliver the kid to a rendezvous point somewhere in a rural southern backwater. Naturally there’s an army of government guys trying to catch them. With the exception, that is, of a sympathetic good-guy scientist (Adam Driver) who gradually decides he wants to help, etc.

I respected Nichols’ small-scale, minimal-tech approach but overall the film is really not all that interesting. It’s one of those films that make you ask “is something cool going to happen here  or what?” I began to lose patience around the 45-minute mark. It has one good scene (a kind of meteoric bombardment of a gas-station complex) but it’s basically telling an annoying, one-note story. But critics like Nichols and so nearly everyone has given this thing a pass. I’m telling you straight that it’s pretty much a  moderate burn. An interesting, indie-styled burn but a burn nonetheless.