Color Out of Space (2019)

Directed by: Richard Stanley

Written by: Stanley, and Scarlett Amaris 

Based on a short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterThe person I went to see Color Out of Space with and I had very different motives for going. I was driven by my recent discovery of Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of acting, and by the film’s Diamantino-esque, indie-bizzaro  poster. My companion, by contrast, was intrigued by the film’s source material: a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Going to a film because you are eager to see a written piece re-enacted, and going because you want to seen an auteur’s provocative new work are two fundamentally different mindsets. Therefore, I may not be be able to pitch this film to Lovecraftian purists, but I can otherwise recommend Color Out of Space on the grounds that it offers a memorable, if not perfect viewing experience

Color Out of Space opens to teenager Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) casting (presumably fake) spells, in a wooded area, where she is confronted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a city water inspector. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of Lavinia’s family. She has two younger brothers, one, Jack, who is quite young (Julian Hilliard), and another, Benny (Brendan Meyer), who is around her age and  is a bit of stoner. Their mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), works an intense financial job from home and was recently treated for breast cancer. Their father,  Nathan (Nicola Cage), straddles the line between being folksy and a leader as he champions the family’s new experimental and rural lifestyle.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review using the term “thorough horror,.” It is one I coined to refer jointly to It: Chapter One, mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. All three films appealed to me because they were not simply about a central terror, but rather built universes rife with the scary and strange (ie their horror was thorough).

I lost my appetite for thorough horror, when I went to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While widely lauded by indie film fans, for me Hereditary was a work that had subjected its “horror” too much to its “thoroughness.” Its plot felt more like a collection of horror motifs than an actual horror story.

In its first, or perhaps first two, acts Color Out of Space has the same problem as Hereditary. Numerous potentially off-putting things take place:  Ward’s concern about undrinkable water, Savinia’s magic, and the warnings of Ezra the squatter-stoner (Tommy Chong). This perilous air  is further built upon by the film’s other eccentricities e.g. Nicolas Cage’s occasional cartoonish acting. All of this latent-horror, however, feels like wasted potential in much of the film’s early moments. We are reminded again and again that something might be off, but the script never allows us to get too excited about the specifics.

One of the film’s structural problems is its failure to develop one character as its protagonist. Is the soft-spoken and concerned Ward, for instance, supposed to be the hero? He could could be, but he’s not around that often, and his personality is kind of bland. What about Lavinia? Well, she has a strong first scene, but then she melts into the film’s fabric as a normal kid with a slightly eccentric hobby. Nathan? Well, he’s the most charismatic character (and played by the most famous actor), and his ideas and doubts might make him protagonist material, but like Ward and Lavinia, he oscillates in out of relevance.

Color Out of Space, however, has an ultimate twist that makes up for its early “mistakes.” While the film’s story may feel like it centres around the overly vague plot-goal of “descent into madness,” I believe its resolution becomes more satisfying if one catches the little bit of explicit moralizing the film offers. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for being a solitary figure. And to this day his stories of the “strange” offer a world for the lonely to cling onto. While at times Color Out of Space is rendered dull by the realism of its relationships (yes, it is possible to apply that word to this movie of pink meteorites and troublesome alpacas), it is nonetheless a work about eccentric, troubled and isolated protagonists. And when such protagonists are given the choice between seeking the acceptance of a mediocre society and leaning into the outright terror of their strangeness, their choice may surprise you.

Not all of Lovecraft is timeless; his racist side has recently been the subject of public discourse. In Stanley’s adaptation, however, Ward is portrayed by a black actor. While Ward never fully understands the ways of the outsider Gardner family, he treats them with more empathy than his fellow townsfolk. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I read the Ward character as a way of drawing a bridge (albeit an opaque, incomplete one) between Lovecraftian social-outsiders, and those rendered outsiders in other senses of the word. No one can truly crack the mystery of the Gardners, but at least Ward can position himself to be the detective.

Color Out of Space is a film that has great potential to frustrate. Perhaps its modernness and occasional bursts of comedy will alienate Lovecraftian purists, while its early-lack of direction will alienate casual film goers. I’ve heard it said that Lovecraft’s original story might be unadaptable, since the source text is about an indescribable color with a vast scope of power. The abstraction of this idea is indeed a hard one to convey in the cinematic format, but I think Stanley pulled it off. Color Out of Space takes a story about a bizarre phenomenon and echoes that bizarreness in its narrative structure. At first you may expect Color Out of Space to be about characters, but it’s not: it’s more the story of a collective. If you want you could be more abstract in your description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is literally about an alien color, but if you went there with your description, I wouldn’t say you were wrong.