Super powers are ten a penny nowadays. No movie is complete without someone’s arm or head extending beyond its natural capacity or a hero using superhuman strength to trash a truck or unearthly speed to pin a villain to the floor.
Midnight Special, on the other hand, opens in theaters today and has already been heralded by some critics as a return to classic films such as Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Certainly it has that science fiction staple: a child with strange powers. But it’s also a reminder of a time before the influx of superhero movies, when a savant—a person with special, sometimes supernatural, gifts; the power to save the world, even—is persecuted by a world that doesn’t understand them.
Here’s our pick of the best of them.
Type of Psychic Power: Telekinesis
Prime Examples: Stalker (1979), Matilda (1996)
Our Pick: Carrie (1976). We couldn’t start a list of supernatural kids without Little Miss Telekinetic herself. In the aftermath of a humiliating bullying incident, the heroine of Stephen King‘s first novel discovers her ability to move objects with the power of her mind. Portrayed memorably by Sissy Spacek in Brian de Palma‘s movie adaptation, she sets the template for persecuted kids everywhere.
Type of Psychic Power: Clairvoyance
Prime Examples: The Shining (1980), Minority Report (2002)
Our Pick: The Fury (1978). Also directed by Brian de Palma and based on a novel by John Farris, this movie features a sinister CIA agent (John Cassavettes) who kidnaps the son of another government agent (Kirk Douglas) to harbor his extremely powerful psychic abilities. He and Gillian, a teenage girl similarly afflicted, struggle to contain their powers, especially their ability to see into the future. A classic of the ’70s horror genre, it’s also notable for its end scene, in which one of the character is seen to explode without the use of post-production special effects.
Type of Psychic Power: Telepathy
Prime Examples: Scanners (1981), Powder (1995), What Women Want (2000), Serenity (2005)
Our Pick: The Shining (1980). Danny Torrance sees terrifying visions from the future and the past, but he’s also able to read minds, as in this scene, when Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) offers him ice cream. If for nothing else, Stanley Kubrick is a master for making even that question frightening.
Type of Psychic Power: Healing Powers
Prime Examples: Phenomenon (1996), Green Mile (1999)
Our Pick: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Spielberg‘s movies crop up a lot in this list, so it’s only right we choose his greatest. This time the little critter with special powers who needs our protection is not a child, or a bullied teen, but a well-meaning and misunderstood alien. Nor is he a threat—unless you’re a government official. It’s not just ET’s story, though—arguably the movie is Elliott’s, as he identifies with his new friend so much he starts to feel ET’s pain and suffering.
Type of Psychic Power: Memory Powers
Prime Examples: Memento (2000), Total Recall (1990), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Our Pick: Rain Man (1988). There’s nothing sci-fi or supernatural about Raymond Bobbit, the character played by Dustin Hoffman whose abilities make him so unusual his younger brother (Tom Cruise) is forced to look after him. His character, unlike the others so far mentioned, was inspired by a real person called Kim Peek, a prodigious savant who claimed to have a photographic, or eidetic, memory.
Type of Psychic Power: Extrasensory Awareness
Prime Examples: Ghost (1990), The Matrix (1999)
Our Pick: The Sixth Sense (1999). Both this movie and The Matrix came out in the same year, and both are about a parallel world that only some of us can see. M. Night Shayamalan‘s The Sixth Sense, however, carries with it that familiar trope—a child, played by Haley Joel Osment, who can see it and who needs protection. Step forward, Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis), who is, it turns out, [redacted] [redacted] and doesn’t even [redacted] until the very end when [redacted].
Type of Psychic Power: Mind Control
Prime Examples: The Power (1968), Star Wars (1977), Scanners (1981)
Our Pick: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009). There’s no mistaking where Army Special Forces Operator Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) thinks his powers are from; he refers to himself as a “Jedi warrior.” It’s the culmination of our paranoia that the Army and the CIA know everything about every paranormal occurrence on the planet, they’re just not telling us. According to this quirky comedy, they do, sort of—maybe.
Which brings us to Midnight Special, the latest movie from director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter). The child at the heart of it has special powers, but which ones, exactly? Well, that’s just one of the ways the movie keeps us in the dark.
It stars Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst as the estranged parents of a son, Alton, whose supernatural gifts means both the federal government (represented by Adam Driver as an N.S.A. analyst) and a Texan cult (led by Sam Shepard as the shrewd, charismatic Calvin Meyer) are after him.
In so doing, it becomes the latest in a long line of movies where the interest isn’t in what makes someone superhuman, but what makes us—the rest of us—human in the first place.Read More