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Color Out of Space

Exhibit A: H.P. Lovecraft, an author well-renowned for his distinctive brand of macabre, misanthropic, existential, heavily racist horror.

Exhibit B: Nicolas Cage, who more or less went bankrupt in 2009 and went around taking whatever paying gig he could get. This led to a remarkably bizarre collection of roles, all performed with few if any fucks to give, which in turn led to a massive cult appeal that Cage has fully embraced.

Exhibit C: Richard Stanley, the anthropologist/documentary filmmaker fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau, still one of the most legendary cinematic catastrophes in history. That was back in 1996, and he hasn’t made another feature film until now.

With all of this put together, of course I was expecting Color Out of Space to be a weird one. It didn’t disappoint.

Nicolas Cage plays Nathan Gardner, the patriarch of a New England family living out in the boondocks about twelve miles from the city of Arkham. (Remember, this is based on Lovecraft’s short story.) Having taken over the family farm, he’s recently made a significant investment in raising alpacas. His wife (Theresa, played by Joely Richardson) is a recent breast cancer survivor who’s gotten back to her telecommuting job as a financial advisor of some sort. They have three kids together.

Benny (Brendan Meyer) is a stoner with a penchant for astronomy. Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a moody teenager and a hardcore Wiccan. Jack (Julian Hilliard) will be our creepy little boy for the movie. And then of course we have the family dog, name of Sam.

Elsewhere, we’ve got Tommy Chong himself in the role of Ezra, an eccentric and harmless old hermit living off the grid in the nearby woods. Then there’s Q’orianka Kilcher in the role of the local mayor, who’s trying to build a huge freshwater reservoir in the region. Enter Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight), a local hydrologist sent to survey for construction.

Into all of this comes a meteorite hurtling out of the sky and crashing into the Gardners’ front yard. The next day, lightning strikes the meteorite — multiple times! — sinking it into the ground and into the local water supply. What results is… um… well, do you remember Annihilation, that Natalie Portman movie from a while back? Got a lot of great reviews at the time? Movie about people losing their minds because some cosmic event made genetics go haywire and the time/space continuum got all bent out of shape? Well, that’s pretty much the exact same scenario we’re looking at here.

The characters are thin, but that scarcely matters when the action gets going and everyone dissolves (sometimes literally) to a helpless blubbering mess. Everyone in the cast plays the screaming confused body horror well enough, but of course Cage is the centerpiece. If you want to show everyone losing their goddamn minds as the world around them goes to hell, accept no substitutes for Nicolas Fucking Cage and his patented brand of crazy.

Nathan’s nascent alcoholism provides a slight thematic undercurrent, ditto for his recurring daddy issues and the concept of family in general. There’s a bit of environmentalism at play as well, most especially with the politics and technology breakdowns involved. Alas, all of themes are superficial, nowhere near developed or prominent enough to sustain the film.

No, it all comes back — as it always does with Lovecraft — to humanity’s insignificance and impotence in this huge, nonsensical, uncaring universe. There’s nothing to motivate our antagonist and there’s no reason why any of this is going on except that shit happens and our characters just happened to be in the way. We don’t have the capacity to even understand this huge existential threat, much less to communicate with it or protect ourselves from it.

All of this makes for a general feeling of overpowering dread. That’s not the same as suspense. In fact, if we know for a certainty that the characters can’t possibly survive and there’s only one way this is going to end, that’s anathema to suspense. Plus, this is a problem that I keep coming back to with regards to H.P. Lovecraft, Cormac McCarthy, and their misanthropic, nihilistic ilk: What am I supposed to do with this message? It’s not entertaining, it’s not enlightening, it doesn’t say anything new or interesting, and it doesn’t inspire any kind of action to try and make the world a better place.

I find the philosophy useless and abhorrent. But it can still make for solidly-made cinema, and this is definitely a solid movie.

A lot of that comes back to the aforementioned cast and their die-hard commitment to all the insanity that unfolds. It also helps that the filmmakers wisely use their miniscule budget (a reported $6 million), leaning into fear of the unknown. So many of the threats remain invisible or just out of sight, and the brief glimpses we do get are sincerely terrifying.

I can’t possibly overstate how hard it is to get legitimate scares out of oppressive shadows and VFX creations, as both are hopelessly overworn crutches of horror cinema. And again, it certainly doesn’t help that we’re given no reason to emotionally invest in these characters or wonder how this will all end for them. Yet because the spectacle is so inventive, the moments are so well-crafted, and they’re working from the rock-solid foundation of Lovecraft’s prose, it works exceedingly well.

The visuals are also noteworthy in their use of color. From start to finish, the filmmakers utilize all sorts of purples, pinks, deep blues, and dark reds. This spectrum is used in a way that expertly conveys the alien threat, to elegant and psychedelic effect. All of this is bolstered by quirks in the sound design and the score. Masterfully done.

Color Out of Space is an assault on the senses, nothing more or less. The characters are thin, the themes are useless, and there’s not much of anything in terms of suspense. That doesn’t leave much else but spectacle, and this movie is overflowing with it. The creature effects, the colors, and the sound design are all staggering, and they’re all anchored by Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of crazy in full effect.

There’s no way this could have the same impact on home video, and January is a lean month anyway. As such, I’m giving this one a recommendation.

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