“A Nicolas Cage movie” is defined by more than simply starring the unique man himself. A true film du Cage loosens its grip on realism to embrace expressionistic freedom in both his performance and the overall tone of the vessel for it. Over the past few years, Cage has taken this concept and ran with it to some really fascinating places, more out-there in the bizarre-arthouse sense of Mandy than the barely-existent direct-to-video sense. (Though he does still do plenty of those, too.) Color Out of Space fits the bill within its first few minutes, as alcoholic dad Nathan Gardner (Cage) bellows at his children Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) to look after their alpacas. It’s there that he breaths strange new life into a word we’ve heard before. It’s right then and there, where the Cage has locked in.
Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1929 short story of the same title, this adaptation finds itself in the right spot. Color Out of Space has long been known as one of Lovecraft’s scariest stories and central to that is its focus on a fear of not just the unknowable but the intangible, the things happening all around us all the time that we can’t even begin to perceive or comprehend. Lovecraft, himself saw the story as a direct confrontation of contemporary sci-fi writers who thought of aliens in terms of human physicality and organization; a rebuke of the idea that when contact is made that we could remotely understand or be understood. Which is precisely why South African filmmaker of genuine idiosyncratic genre pieces, Richard Stanley, was an excellent choice to adapt it — making it his first film in over twenty years since he was sent to director’s jail after the notoriously troubled production of The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996 (which saw John Frankenheimer relieve Stanley after he was fired).
All the strangeness is set into motion with the arrival of a mysterious meteor in the backyard of the Gardner family’s New England farm, located just outside of Arkham, the fictional Massachusetts town featured in many of Lovecraft’s stories. It radiates an unholy pink glow that will come to seep literally into nature surrounding it, and figuratively into the fabric of Steve Annis’ cinematography. It spreads madness in the air as the family members lose their minds in tandem with Stanley’s headlong leap into lunatic grotesque. And as the stream of beaming meteoric colors begins to infect its surroundings, as does it begin to create a constantly mutating sense of biology, psychology, and time. Days being to bleed into each other, new plants and bugs begin to appear, the crops grow big and juicy but ultimately rotten on the inside, animals go missing only to reappear in misshapen, mutated forms.
But weirdness can feel empty without artistry and Stanley still has the chops after over twenty years out of the directing game. Stanley ratchets up the off-kilter humor while playing down the deep melancholy present in the original short story. This observation could be seen as a knock on the director’s approach, but audiences going in with zero expectations beyond a good time, the interlaced humor feels like nothing more than playing to Cage’s unique strengths. But with that humor also comes Stanley’s valiant effort to answer the unanswerable question of what a deteriorating reality might look like to someone trapped inside it, deploying a meld of practical and CGI elements, to tip one element of a shot off its axis of normalcy to plunge the audience into a whirlwind of a bad-vibes trip. But that’s not to say this is all in the Gardner family’s heads. Pushing experimental biology, the film designates the Gardner farm as an epicenter for a radical field of DNA-scrambling insanity. The aforementioned alpacas, so friendly and cuddly? Things don’t exactly go so great for them.
On a purely sensory level, Stanley whips up a solid feast, but it doesn’t entirely stick. The matter of what it’s all for lingers past the credits. Stanley’s focus falls on the family dynamic; between Dad boozing, Mom (Joely Richardson) in remission from cancer, Benny sneaking off to burn a joint at every possible moment, and Lavinia dabbling with forces beyond her control, everyone under the roof feels out of step with one another. One graspable reading would suggest their individual mental breakdowns reflect their status as a group of people bound together and yet unable to understand each other. Another stab at interpretation could focus on their impulses for various forms of self-harm, as if the meteorite had been unconsciously summoned to give them the destruction they crave.
And the film has its struggles: some messy plotting, some weak performances, and some underdeveloped characters in general. Yet, Stanley does give an adventurous midnight-movie crowd enough to mull over while they’re having their faces knocked by an onslaught of light and sound. Composer Colin Stetson contributes a score of sinister synths that reinforces the hallucinatory atmosphere, perfectly replicating the feeling of noise coming from the inside of your mind. He’s just one more weapon in the stylistic arsenal that Stanley commands, an armory of tricks and formal manipulations — the eerie pink gives a blue and red wavy look to everything its light touches, making some shots look like your seeing old-school 3-D without the retro glasses. Stanley seemingly makes movies as only he can, and if that means defying comprehension every now and again, then that’s just the price of admission to his insular world. And it’s a price I have no problem continually paying. A vessel of oddball distinction, Color Out of Space‘s visually alluring Lovecraft horror illustrates more than hues, but a distorted, abstract vortex of skull-raddling psychedelia.