Color Out of Space is director Richard Stanley’s first feature film in over 25 years, since his infamously failed effort helming 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau – an experience that became the subject of David Gregory’s 2014 documentary Lost Soul. After a self-imposed “sabbatical” from Hollywood that’s lasted over two decades, you have to figure Stanley really connected with the source material for his new horror film, the 1927 short story by H. P. Lovecraft,
Perhaps Stanley identified with Lovecraft’s unapologetic individuality and often spiteful creativity. Disenchanted by the Tinsel Town machine, the writer/director has now returned to craft something very non-Hollywood, executed with the same type of stubborn auteurism as Lovecraft, himself.
The Gardner family lives in the fictional rural town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) has just moved back to his childhood farm home with his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), with their daughter and two sons in tow. Nathan gets grief from his family about his recent decision to buy a bunch of alpacas for the farm, which is accompanied by ridicule from his kids who question the animals’ necessity in their lives.
His elder son, Benny (Brendan Meyer), smokes lots of weed while obsessing over watching real-time NASA footage on his computer, while teenage daughter, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), has a passion for the occult and uses her interests in witchcraft to try and prevent her mother’s surgically removed cancer from coming back.
But then something strange happens. One night, a meteorite lands in the Gardner’s front yard, accompanied by a bright neon pink light, which swarms over their home and everything/everybody inside of it. The result slowly turns their “normal” everyday life into something horrific. Animals (including the alpacas) begin mutating into ugly monsters and plants begin producing ginormous fruit, though rotten and inedible inside. And the Gardner family is slowly becoming – even more – insane.
Capping off the beginning and end is voiceover narration by Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a hydrologist visiting the town to test out the water’s toxicology levels. While not affected first-hand by the meteorite, he develops a sort of relationship with Lavinia and becomes invested in what’s happening to the family. Ward brings a much needed grounding to an otherwise polarizing acid trip of a movie and the bizarre characters within.
The oddity of each of the Gardners only adds to the bizarre tone of this film. In fact, one of the only things countering Stanley’s steady pace is the mismatch of onscreen personalities. He roots his surreal world in realism to better juxtapose the strange events that occur throughout. And yet, even before the meteor hits, nobody in this movie feels real. They almost all seem like characters from a comedy.
Cage reaches his trademarked highs so often that it almost becomes self-parody to where you literally can’t help but burst into unintentional laughter a few times. He even frequently goes beyond his typical Cage-ian outbursts and makes the choice of channeling the idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump as well, making us wonder if some of the family’s peculiarities are even a product of this alien life form, or perhaps caused by something more relatively “of this earth” (e.g. ghosts, possession, schizophrenia).
I’ve never read Lovecraft’s short story, but I imagine it would play similarly to this film. The way Stanley builds the world around these characters is akin to what could be described to us in words on a page. The way he paces his narrative is very much story-like, staying on a steady course and ramping up in a big way towards the end, you almost wonder if he didn’t actually meticulously map out every main plot point mathematically. The director creates suspense well, but only ever gives us something definitively scary for a few fleeting moments. No doubt intentional, though those images of body horror would make even David Cronenberg blush.
As far as Lovecraft goes, it’s clear that he understands aliens as something more intangible than what pop-culture has come to define them over the last century: foreign beings, sure, yet not entirely unlike us humans. 2016’s Arrival may have touched on these sorts of differing ideas, but Lovecraft had already started the movement nearly a century ago. It’s the same view we humans have had of God, himself, since the dawn of time, placing a sort of human physicality to higher power.
But Biblically, we’re taught that God surpasses all earthly understanding. Much too, if aliens do in fact exist, there’s a good chance we won’t be ready for them either, since our understanding has been greatly influenced by earthly imagery and our own mass media.
Color Out of Space won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Stanley deviates from the typical Hollywood formula, yet never truly commits to being experimental – a quasi-compromise that’s sure to turn off some viewers. We almost wish this grandiose concept was executed with a bit more familiarity as there are no real stages in the characters’ discovery of this phenomenon – steps we expect from a movie like this. It’s not Stanley’s fault we’ve come to expect them. We’re never spoon fed an explanation, but also frustratingly never get one either. By the end of this phantasmagorically incoherent madness, the only thing that makes sense is that it doesn’t make sense. But it’s not until you realize maybe that’s the point that you’re content with the end result.