H.P. Lovecraft. Richard Stanley. Nicolas Cage. To a certain type of moviegoer, hearing those three names in conjunction is reason enough to be excited, and to them I say: Just go see Color Out Of Space. Don’t even bother reading the rest of this review, because there’s nothing more you really need to know. Whatever your wildest expectations for what an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story would look like, as envisioned by director Richard Stanley and starring Nic Cage, trust me — this movie will exceed them, and you will not be disappointed. You know that pleasantly satisfied feeling you get when you enjoy something even more than you thought you would, even though you thought it would be extremely your sh*t in the first place? That’s my favorite feeling in the world, and that’s exactly how I felt after Color Out Of Space.
As for those of you out there who might need a little bit more to go on than an assurance that This Movie Is Weird And Extremely My Sh*t, let me see if I can help you determine whether Color Out Of Space might be a little bit your sh*t, too. If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s original story, then you’ll pretty much know what to expect from the plot: a space rock lands in a family’s yard, and vaguely undefined insanity ensues. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft’s text — particularly in the details of the central weirdness — while modernizing the setting and updating the timeline of events. Nathan Gardner (Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) have taken their kids — stoner Benny (Brendan Meyer), baby-Wiccan Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and youngest Jack (Julian Hilliard) — and settled into Nathan’s father’s old farmstead, deep in the countryside around Arkham, MA. Theresa struggles to keep up her job as a day trader despite an iffy internet connection, while Nathan is doing his best to reinvent himself as a farmer the way all former urbanites do: he’s bought some alpacas. Mainly, you just need to understand that the family is an hour’s drive away from anything close to civilization, and none of them know what the hell they’re doing. Oh, and they let Tommy Chong squat in their woods.
Then the meteorite hits, and all hell breaks loose… slowly.
What exactly goes wrong and why is hard to explain, and if you’re the kind of person who wants firm answers to life’s mysteries then this may be a problem for you. The meteorite has brought something alien to the Gardners’ doorstep. It infects the water, and the plants and animals, and eventually the family. It manipulates time and flesh. It’s a sound. It’s static, radiation, miasma. It’s all of that, or none of it at all. Maybe it’s just a color — a pinkish/reddish/purplish hue that soon dominates the screen. It’s hard to describe because it’s supposed to defy our understanding, yet within that uncanny inscrutability, the film finds its edge. Stanley, with the aid of some truly solid SFX work, guides the story’s descent into madness by grounding it in a tangible progression of otherness. At first, it’s just new flowers that sprout up, or bugs and lizards that take on that strange color, changes so slight the family barely registers them. The tension is masterfully built as those changes multiply, forcing the Gardners to first acknowledge and then reckon with them, as that otherness wheedles away at their sanity.
Oops, I said “sanity” — so I guess it’s time to address the Nic Cage in the room. Color Out Of Space smartly deploys the actor by letting him be a barometer for the proceedings. He’s a perfectly imperfect father, a mild and bumbling man, and as the strangeness mounts, he’s the one furthest in denial. Nathan never exactly spirals out of control, but there are certain outbursts where his voice takes on a… well, a Cage-ness, for wont of a better term, almost as if he’s developing another personality. It feels like you’re watching Nic Cage dangle the threat of his reputation, all those freakouts and memes online, as another element of the film’s descent — only to rein it all back in and return to bumbling dad-mode. It’s fascinating, but it’s also a clever subversion of your expectations because he never quite overtakes the movie in terms of overall weirdness. Rather, the longer he stays reined in, the more unsettling it is as a viewer, as if you’re waiting for another shoe that never quite drops. It’s also worth noting that while so much of the marketing plays on Cage’s star power and reputation, his character isn’t really the hero here. This is truly an ensemble piece, and all the actors hold their own — including Elliot Knight as Ward, a hydrologist who is testing the area’s water supply and becomes an unwitting witness to the events.
Color Out Of Space is a similar sort of sci-fi/horror hybrid to Annihilation, though smaller in scope, so that might make a useful point of comparison if you’re on the fence. For the squeamish, I’d say there are a few memorably uncomfortable images that will stick with you, but there isn’t a lot of overt violence, and the grossest elements are still admirably shot to leave things to the imagination. Whenever I felt sure I’d see something terrible, I didn’t — and the terrible things I did see were never the things I expected (THE ALPACAS). The hardest thing to wrap your head around is how beautiful it all is, even the gross bits, and just how much that alone can carry you through. By the time the climax rolled around, the lingering sense of dread gave way to excitement, and I found myself not rooting for the Gardners but for the Color itself. I wanted to see more. I wanted to see how far it could go.
In that regard, I guess the film had a happy sort of ending, if you’re Team Color.
Color Out of Space is now available on Shudder.
Header Image Source: RLJE Films