Director: Richard Stanley
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Elliot Knight
What causes a meteorite to crash land on the farm property of the Gardner family? Could it be the incantation performed by teenage witch Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) in an effort to cure her mother’s (Joely Richardson) cancer? Is it a kind of divine intervention sent to interrupt yet another unwelcome Nicolas Cage love scene? Might Lav’s astrology-obsessed stoner brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) know the answer? Is it a coincidence that it strikes the same day that hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight) arrives in the area? And should reason even be applied to its appearance? The meteor in Color Out of Space is an agent of chaos. A catalyst for change in Richard Stanley’s vivid HP Lovecraft adaptation; the latest in a pleasingly strong series of cosmic horror films to land in the last few years (following Annihilation, The Endless and fellow Cage vehicle Mandy to name a few).
Cage’s patriarch Nathan Gardner insists on drinking fresh water from the family well, but the arrival of the meteorite signals the threat of contamination, as Elliot notes while visiting the farm’s kooky squatter Ezra (Tommy Chong). Before long strange occurrences start bending reality on the Gardner property, as the meteorite draws unusual pink lightning storms to the cluster of inhabitants being transformed by this unique celestial event.
Lovecraft’s fiction often charts a descent into madness, drawing out horrors from the degradation of his protagonists or their environments, and so it goes here. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (from which Annihilation is drawn) similarly fixates on the poetry in describing the indescribable mysteries of Area X. JG Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company is another novel that wholly charts an environmental metamorphosis with supernatural origins. Transmuting texts like these to the medium of film often finds directors indulging in resplendent, eerie psychedelia. Stanley joins their ranks, as the purple haze that covers the farm openly recalls Garland’s ‘shimmer’ or the Argento-esque music video beauty of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. A texture prefigured in Lav’s dyed locks.
Soon impossible insects are hatching, fantastical flowers and creepers are growing, and the inhabitants of the farm start experiencing sensory hallucinations. Phantom smells. Phantom sound frequencies. Or maybe not phantoms at all… Color Out of Space finds its UK release coinciding with that of Todd Haynes’ true-life eco-drama Dark Waters, and one might readily look at Stanley’s film as a more fantastical take on a similar concern. The pressing theme here is of contamination and a threatened ecosystem; fiction that embellishes our pre-established fears that the Earth itself has grown hostile toward us. That our pollution of the natural world has engendered our own damnation. Could the meteor even be seen as punishment sent from a disenfranchised deity?
Cage’s performance is cheesy and a tad lamentable, though his memeified star power will draw an audience to Color Out of Space that it might not have found otherwise. But this is Stanley’s show more than anyone else’s. By night he swirls the location shoot in dry ice, or fills dark corners of his frames with dreaded potential. By day, the wealthy and abundant property is painted as a utopian garden of false promises. A feast for the eyes but rotten underneath. The low budget practical and digital effects work is really quite impressive, recalling the tendencies found in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Carpenter’s The Thing or even Spielberg/Hooper’s Poltergeist. While we’re collecting influences, it might not even be a stretch to cite Eli Roth’s grimly gory Cabin Fever. Sadly some viewers will probably think the references only go as far back as the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things. Color Out of Space certainly isn’t afraid of getting gooey, grizzly and very, very weird. Stanley’s judgement for exactly how much we should see is often a pristine balancing act.
Nathan is a mortally fearful man haunted by his own father’s death, but when events inevitably steer him to go full Jack Torrance on his farm, he appears to grow ecstatic at the possibility of exacting death and judgement on the newly mutated world around him. He is man, and his arrogance that he can remain master of the natural world is feebly misguided. The threat of violence in him is scary, but Cage makes it clownish, taking some of the edge off.
Beautiful and beautifully strange, it still feels as though Stanley’s film reaches a kind of glass ceiling of what it can achieve. This may ultimately be an unfair criticism as so many of the aforementioned materials took their cues from Lovecraft. So much so that the arrival of this adaptation feels beholden to the other filmmakers he already inspired. In any case genre film lovers will find plenty to love in the psychedelic ickiness of Color Out of Space even if it mostly reconstitutes body and ecological horrors that have manifested elsewhere.
Still, you will get to see Nicolas Cage milk an alpaca. So what else are you waiting for?