Guest Review: Dr. Dan reviews Color Out of Space
Rating: A- It’s a solid film, but I don’t know if it will be a classic, and I'm curious how it will stand up to repeat viewings.
Recommendation: See it on the big screen with good audio
Late in the evening of February 20, I went to a screening of Richard Stanley’s “Color out of Space”. The film is based on a 1927 H. P. Lovecraft story. For years, I had heard the term “Lovecraftian Horror” used. In my mind, it always meant something evil, truly alien, and world-threatening. When I heard that this film was made from a Lovecraft story, I wanted to finally see for myself what true Lovecraftian Horror was.
I wasn’t disappointed.
A brief synopsis of the plot. The film is based on the experiences of the Gardner family. They live in the father’s inherited family house in the deep woods in Massachusetts. The mother is a cancer patient and obsessed financial consultant. There are two teenage kids: a wannabe Wiccan daughter and a pot-smoking son. There’s also a preteen boy. They are being the typical modern family when one night a meteor lands in their front yard. At that point, things start to get strange. And, really, to avoid major spoilers that you should experience for yourself, that’s all I’m going to say about that. Oh, except for the fact that they raise alpacas.
The movie sets its tone from the opening shot. The sound design fills the theater with electronic music tones that are immediately unsettling. The colors are slightly oversaturated, reinforcing the title and setting the tone for the film. This feeling of unease (building to real dread) continues throughout the film without letting up. For example, one of the effects of the meteor/alien is that time gets a bit messed up. This is handled brilliantly as scenes jump from day to night with no apparent reason. Two or three day-night cycles can pass for action that should only take a few hours in normal time. We experience it as the characters do.
I also liked that we experience the mystery of what is happening from the characters’ perspective. Much of the horror happens off-screen, and we get the reaction shots. That’s not to say that we never get to see what’s happening, but when we do, the views are fleeting. In some cases, I was happy with this, as the images were much more disturbing than I was prepared for. This is a good moment to talk about the practical effects used for some of the more gruesome scenes. There’s one scene in particular where I was a bit disappointed with the effects. They seemed amateurishly designed, like the first shapes a child would make when trying to sculpt a rabbit out of clay. But then I realized that was the point. What we were seeing was supposed to represent the first creations of an intelligence that was still trying to understand the material it was given to sculpt with. (By the way, the actual scene has nothing to do with a rabbit. So don’t sit through the film waiting for the gruesome rabbit scene.)
This gets to another point that I appreciated in this film. The director understood the story he was telling and told it subtly, despite Nicholas Cage’s histrionics. The intelligence of the audience isn’t insulted. For example, one side effect of the alien’s presence is that each character experiences it somewhat differently, and their personalities get magnified in different ways. As I’ve thought over the film, I’ve tried to find the common theme. Was it what they fear the most (that would be simple, and a bit cliche)? What they see as their identity? Their strongest dream or nightmare (there’s a quote about dreams early in the film that feels like a clue)? Perhaps all of these? I appreciated that the answer isn’t shoved down our throats, and the characters don’t become caricatures.
The film builds to a conclusion that met my expectations for Lovecraftian Horror. The alien remains alien. No real explanation is given for why it came here or what it wanted. However, there is a hint that, whatever it was doing, it’s not necessarily done. Which is terrifying.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Josh C. Waller, Q’orianka Kilcher and Tommy Chong
Directed by Richard Stanley
Written by Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris