Movie Madness 2016 Heat Six: Midnight Special vs. The Purge: Election Year

Movie Madness is a feature wherein I pit my top sixteen most anticipated films of the year against each other in a bracketed single elimination tournament because top ten lists are boring.

The brackets as they currently stand.

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So these two films are the ones that are most mismatched. I tried to match each pairing of films by genre and release as best I could, but by the end of the process I had two films that didn’t really seem to fit anywhere else… And here they are!

Midnight Special is the latest from Jeff Nichols, he of southern gothic fame, including great flicks like Take Shelter and Mud. As an oddly retro sci-fi movie, Midnight Special is a bit of a departure for him, though it is notable that Nichols’ mainstay collaborator Michael Shannon is along for the ride. He plays Roy, a man who, with the help of Joel Edgerton’s Lucas has seemingly kidnapped a child from a strange cult and is on a cross country journey to some endgame.

This is how the film opens, and it’s all very enigmatic, with Edgerton driving their beat up car in the dark using night vision goggles instead of headlights as they proceed to their mystery destination. It soon emerges however that the boy Alton has strange abilities, including being able to hear radio communications and in one very exciting sequence, bring down a satellite that’s attempting to find them.

The truth is, it’s all good stuff. Nichols knows how to craft a compelling story by this point, and I found myself especially pleasantly surprised by Adam Driver’s character, a government agent called Sevier, who is brought in to track Alton down. Rather than being the normal passionless unquestioning authority figure, Sevier emerges as an empathetic deuteragonist who is willing to question his own ideals and make decisions based on all the information given to him. It’s a refreshing take on a familiar character archetype, and one I very much appreciated.

If I am to criticise one thing, it’s that due to Midnight Special’s decision to open in media res, most of the main decisions that drive the plot along are made before the film actually begins. Most of the tension comes from the characters acting upon these decisions, and the way Nichols teases expectations and plays everyone off against each other. But despite this dissatisfaction, I enjoyed Midnight Special, finding it to be the sort of classic science fiction I’ve been missing in cinema in recent years, and something akin to what I wanted from last year’s Tomorrowland. And if there’s a more masculine duo on screen this year than the sheer grit brought by Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, I’ll be extremely surprised!

And then there’s The Purge: Election Year, which seems to be the dark horse in this batch of movies, but I’ve found the Purge to be the little horror franchise that could. The first one was a waste of a concept, a generic home invasion flick. But the second film Anarchy opened the action out onto the streets in something a bit more akin to action flicks like The Warriors.

Set to continue in that vein then was Election Year, the third in the franchise, with Frank Grillo returning as Leo Barnes, this time guarding a senator played by Elizabeth Mitchell, who is running on an anti-Purge platform. If Anarchy was a commentary on United States gun rights, I guess there are no prizes for guessing what Election Year is lampooning in this year of 2016, the year of Clinton vs Trump.

To be fair, it does also make an attempt to comment on other recent events such as black lives matter, with one character emphatically stating “You don’t sneak up on a black guy on Purge night!” It’s admittedly very surface level in all of its commentary, but I’m willing to respect the franchise for at least making some kind of effort on this front.

Beyond this, the film is fairly superfluous to be honest. The action is fun, but relatively unmemorable, and the horror elements are fairly well played, but it’s nothing that wasn’t done before (and done better) in the previous film. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Election Year, it was still a fun time at the pictures, but it didn’t feel as rejuvenating as Anarchy did, purely because it takes after that second film so much.

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