The eldritch narratives weaved by H.P. Lovecraft are terrifying on a bone-deep level for many reasons — not least of which the unshakeable feeling that the terrors visited upon his human characters are not entirely alien, but disturbingly familiar. They are not new aggressors, they are “elders,” masters, things that we do not understand but somehow know have existed since long before us. In his first directorial effort in 20 years, Richard Stanley loyally recreates this deep-dread vibe with Color Out of Space, but the tale’s effect on the 2020 viewer will be notably different from that of the 1927 reader. In the cinema of today, this wackadoodle, mind-bending, eye-popping sci-fi thriller, starring the unbearably talented Nicolas Cage himself, is familiar not just for its Lovecraftian terrors, but equally for its allusions to the otherworldly political landscape of the last four years. What may initially seem like a relatively rote retreading of familiar genre formulas and spine-tingling effects — less homage than an imitation of films from the likes of John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, and Panos Cosmatos (given this film’s multiple connections to the admittedly superior Mandy) — deserves a deeper dive into its allegorical depths. All in all, Color Out of Space may have its faults, but nevertheless deserves to join that honorable rank alongside They Live, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Get Out, and many more: sci-fi films that work both as freaky fun and deeply political stories that use fantasy to skewer reality.
Upon first impressions, Color Out of Space seems really rather straightforward. It adopts a competently eerie voiceover approach at its beginning, as hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) recounts his bizarre and implicitly doomed mission to the rural forests of the American Northeast, then transitions into the main plot via Ward’s first encounter with Lavinia Gardner (Madeline Arthur), an angsty but resourceful teen living with her family in an isolated farmhouse. The Gardners, made up of father Nathan (Cage), mother Theresa (Joely Richardson), and children Lavinia, Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hillard), are not as creepy or duplicitous a family as their remote location or centrality to a woodsy horror film might lead one to expect. By all accounts, they are rather normal — they have moved to Nathan’s father’s farmhouse for financial reasons, but Nathan makes do with his newfound ambition for raising and milking alpacas (alpacas – the inarguable breakout stars of the film), and Theresa does her best to run her financial consultancy from the attic. The kids are mostly alright, but growing antsier with their secluded surroundings. The tension is palpable, but it is nowhere close to a frenzy — just a family getting by day to day and making the most of their circumstance. Until, that is, an alien meteor crashes in their backyard and the Color begins to… change things.
This is one of the many elements of archetypal creepy cinema that Stanley, to his credit, subverts or pivots away from throughout the narrative. The plot, adapted from Lovecraft’s short story and updated to the modern-day by Stanley and Scarlett Amaris, does well to sprinkle in a number of fake-outs that will keep the viewer guessing. When the inevitable don’t go down there scenes come, or the what’s that lurking in the shadows sensation runs down your spine, more often than not, it’s nothing. However formulaic its climax becomes towards the end, Color Out of Space commendably avoids straightforward jump scares and other tropes in favor of a creeping, unsettling feeling of losing control over what is happening, why, and what is supposed to happen instead.
The horrors in Color Out of Space come gradually, and, mercifully, without the expositional triteness, a lesser script might smack the viewer over the head with. Instead of the characters repeatedly saying “What time is it?” “I don’t know what time it is!”, they start to appear visibly disoriented with when they last did their chores or spoke to each other, and where the sun is in the sky at any given moment. Instead of anyone pointing and yelling “Look at that weird color! What’s going on!” the eerie reddish-magenta that emanates from the meteor subtly encompasses more and more of the Gardner’s land until every blade of grass, tree trunk and critter sports the pastel hue. Instead of any member of the family hollering “You’re not acting like yourself!” or the like, each of them start to act out of character in one way or another — normally prim and profanity-averse Nathan becomes more indignant at every slight, swearing a blue streak every time he flies off the handle; Theresa begins letting out cruel judgments of her children’s appearances and behavior; Jack, perhaps the most plucked-from-the-canon of them all, goes full creepy-movie-kid and starts regularly staring into the well on their property, laughing into the air while talking to “the man down there.”
Meanwhile, the Color takes over. While it is never clear, and does not have to be, whether the Color is intentionally turning family members against each other or whether their fear and confusion is responsible for the heightened aggression and dysfunction — perhaps due to anxieties that were already present — the allusions to behaviors like gaslighting, tribalism, denial, and complacency are unavoidable. When certain characters momentarily notice how strange things are, others quickly dismiss their concerns. Perhaps more unsettlingly, however, those who notice the strangeness frequently decide not to do or say anything about what is clearly going on; in a film where purple alien lightning fuses two people together into a monstrous mess of limbs and flesh towards the end, somehow the more chilling moment comes when Lavinia, finally seeing what is happening to her family, immediately decides to take Benny and leave the rest of them behind – before falling back into complacency shortly thereafter. The lawn is bright pink, the TV is a garbled mess of static and disturbing patterns, the phone lines are unusable, and the dog is fully mental, in other words their world is being turned upside down — but hardly anyone really stands up to do anything. Sound familiar?
This month, the President of the United States was acquitted of two articles of impeachment in a Senate trial that, whether you agree with the legitimacy of the impeachment process or not, was a deliberate diversion from constitutional law. The refusal to hear witnesses, the Senate majority leader’s open dismissal of impartiality, and the President’s own barely veiled threats and mob-like behavior before, during, and after the process is just the latest in an innumerable list of “how is this happening” events that, let’s be honest, hardly anyone really knows what to do about or how to process, moment to moment. It’s as if we have entered a phase of history that leaps between previously unthinkable or supposedly impossible breaches of precedent, conduct, legality, order, and even reality, and the more it happens, the less most seem able or interested in analyzing or responding to the developments. Reading the reporting on these recent events as the credits rolled on Color Out of Space, I was immediately stunned by how accurately the film captures that exact feeling — a sense of runaway dread, loss of composure, elemental change that should be impossible but is happening, or has somehow already happened, and feels, hauntingly, yet familiarly, inevitable.
This is not meant to come off as cynically as it might seem. I am not characterizing the current political situation as entirely equivalent to an alien meteor making you crazy enough to not notice that your lawn is pink. But what Color Out of Space brings, albeit morosely, to the national conversation and the cultural landscape is an unflinching sense of dismay and disorientation that few films have captured with as much attention to detail. Perhaps it is no surprise that alongside the larger-than-ever superhero genre, which offers narratives of identifiably good people defeating and silencing forces of evil and wrongdoing, a discourse of skepticism and disavowal of these stories has risen in step. To construct a right vs. wrong narrative that speaks confidently and productively to our time, there must be a palpable sense of understanding what the “wrong” of today really looks like, and while this is never a simple task, most of today’s narratives seem woefully ill-prepared to speak about the rise of the far-right with anything more complex than “they’re Nazis.” The latest Spider-Man did a decent job, revealing (spoilers) its villain to be a master of diversion and false narratives, waxing poetic about his various manipulative plots with all the vim and vigor of a Roger Ailes or a Steve Bannon, but that film’s levity and brawny defeat of this one bad egg undercut its message. In a more egregious example, do not get me started on the utter failure of Jay Roach’s Bombshell to address anything useful about our current moment other than “FOX News actually did piss off racist rich white women, once.” Color Out of Space, on the other hand, turns a spotlight towards those that should know better, who see the methods and effects of duplicity, abuse, and mental and environmental manipulation, but make little to no effort to protect each other from the menace or stop others from falling victim.
The insinuations are everywhere – ranging from the momentary to the cacophonous – that the true horror within Color Out of Space is that the panic becomes something to adapt to, instead of to fight. As the identification of the problem gives way to indifference and unproductive dissent, the film recalls the trajectory of the #resistance, falling into serious danger of dissipating into vociferous infighting in the run-up to 2020. It’s all in there: the Color manipulates the family through warped messages disseminated via television while cutting off their connections to the outside world. It muddles everyone’s senses of time, leaving a “truth isn’t truth” (Giuliani, 2018) effect on them all. As the Gardners’ hippie neighbor Ezra (played charmingly by Tommy Chong) surmises in one of the film’s best scenes, the Color wants to turn our world into “something like the world it came from,” into “what it knows” — the world of property development and million-dollar loans, perhaps? And most obviously, Mr. Cage has a clearly fun time playing Nathan’s increasing hysteria such that he begins delivering lines in a register awfully reminiscent of the 45th President — so I might not be revealing anything Stanley and Cage haven’t discussed already.
But the connections are significant, not only for a deeper appreciation of Color Out of Space, but as a both refreshing and sobering reminder that sci-fi may well be the genre best primed for this kind of finger-on-the-pulse commentary — refreshing because politically-tinged jabs like this have not happened enough since 2016, and sobering because politically-tinged jabs like this have not happened enough since 2016. Seriously, where are they?! Times of political and societal crisis have often seen Hollywood practically spitting out sci-fi yarns dripping with political allusions: They Live, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (three times!), Soylent Green, The Stepford Wives, 1984, RoboCop, the list goes on – plus, more recently, Children of Men, District 9, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina, Arrival, and Get Out. But to borrow a phrase from Spike Lee, as soon as Agent Orange showed up, it seems these narratives have been relegated to the occasional Black Mirror and that’s about it.
What narratives we do have favor sweeping, global-sized issues: environmentalism, animal rights, gender inequality, racial tension, world wars. These are all extremely important, but the movies that attempt to address them writ large are in danger of abstracting these topics to death. The simplicity of the anti-Reaganite, anti-consumerist They Live, or the tongue-in-cheek satire baked into RoboCop, works so well because it engenders delightfully fun experiences while simultaneously skewering specific problems with the American conversation of the time. Planet-sized event stories like The Avengers or War for the Planet of the Apes, societally impactful as they may be, simply reach too high to feel particularly useful on the ground — not that these are not monumental achievements, but the need for smaller, craftier sci-fi is there, and it is not, to my knowledge, being met.
So, for all the places Color Out of Space could improve as a film, Stanley’s work commendably stands as a revitalizing reminder of where the genre could improve from here on – of why and how science fiction can and should rise to the occasion as a site for of-the-moment narratives, as we try and make sense of all this and make plans for what to do next.