When Nicolas Cage talks about how much he loves alpacas in Richard Stanley’s loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, you know we’ve reached peak Nicolas Cage! Obvious running joke aside (in which Color Out of Space deploys), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nicolas Cage is on a bit of a renaissance at the moment.
After the batshit craziness of Mandy (a polarizing yet personal fan favourite at London Film Festival last year), it was the one film that permitted him to gleefully accept his manic personality. Alongside its enriched material, limited lines, a straightforward revenge story, a wonderful score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson and the most psychedelic viewing experiences I’ve ever encountered at the cinema, it was the most ‘Nic Cage thing’ that Nic Cage has ever done. With some similar respects, Color Out of Space tries to repeat the same trick its unearthly strangeness, its ambitious cinematography and material that brings out the best of Cage. But this time around, it doesn’t quite live up to that standard.
That’s partly down to Cage being the big draw appeal where the expectancy of his ‘Cage-isms’ largely overshadows the subtlety and nuance that Color Out of Space desperately searches for. It wants to be this serious, mood board of emotions and bonkers plight, yet can’t help itself in escaping to the off-kilter humour that Cage brings in abundance. I mean, no-one can do ‘Cage’ like Nic Cage, but this was a rare occasion where less could have been more. And as much as director Richard Stanley does an effective job, coming out of cinematic retirement since his ill-fated work on his passion project The Island of Dr. Moreau, you get the impression that this was a missed opportunity to explore the scope of its source material further.
I’m not going to pretend that I know all of Lovecraft’s stories with immaculate detail. But for someone who adores science fiction with its indulgences into horror, we’re indebted to his work as one of its influential originators of the genre. Watching Color Out of Space was a meta, full-circle pilgrimage in seeing how many writers, directors and artists have been directly influenced by Lovecraft’s legacy. Director Richard Stanley brings a loving tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing (with some David Cronenberg body horror to top it off). Ridley Scott has often cited that Alien and Prometheus are a venture into Lovecraft territory. But Alex Garland’s Annihilation is perhaps the closest Lovecraftian display that emulates the haunting tone and psychological spiritualism of Color Out of Space.
Therefore it becomes a challenge to try and ‘re-invent the wheel’ when homages are out there in popular culture. While science fiction tends to be repetitive, Color Out of Space opts to encapsulate that statement instead of daring itself to be different. Preferring style over substance, it throws the kitchen sink of familiar tropes and basic textures that becomes your typical, run of the mill Easter Egg inclusion.
Starting as a homage to Sleepy Hollow with its twist on witchcraft mysticism and symbolism, we’re introduced to the members of the Gardner family. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) enjoys the simplicity and self-resourcefulness of living ‘off the grid’ with his family. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is a recovering cancer patient, trying to find some semblance of normality with her work (providing there’s a decent wifi connection). His daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) is a rebellious, practising Wiccan, his son Benny (Brendan Meyer) can be found somewhere off-screen getting high whereas his youngest Jack (Julian Hilliard) innocently adores his mother’s attention.
Their idyllic family life is thrown into chaos when a meteor from outer space crash lands metres away from their doorstep. As the epicentre of strange, alien lifeforms begin to take on a terraforming rebirth by poisoning the water, their plants, vegetation, animals (there’s no happy ending for those alpacas) and the entire eco-structure of the Gardner family land. Their phone lines and TV signal are heavily disrupted, infecting the family into a slow descent of colour-hue madness, paranoia and the personal chaos of amplified fears and anxieties.
Part of the fun is watching each family member succumb to the hypnotic effects and for two-thirds of the film, it does enough to hold together its thematic strengths, maintaining a sufficient balance of atmospheric mood (with its creep factors dialled up to significant levels) with some noteworthy tension and body-horror scares. Amongst its captivating cinematography by Steve Annis and score by Colin Stetson, they collectively reinvigorate the senses, allowing its audience to sample the madness upon the screen. For large parts, on a technical level, it is a resounding win.
But for all of its boldness, Color Out of Space routinely plays it safe, lacking the presence to make all of its horrifying elements stick as it tonally rushes towards its climactic third act that becomes an all-out CGI excuse for a B-Movie style finish. It’s ending is clever and compelling, but it’s lack of empathy towards its characters and abandoned development leaves it with an unsatisfactory conclusion, with Cage at this point enjoying that he’s finally off the hook to do what he does best.
Depending on your mood, Color Out of Space will either be an entertaining yet manic escapade of fun or a disappointing adaptation of Lovecraft’s source material. The polarizing divide feels just about right for a film that has all the ingredients of being the perfect, Friday night horror film that you discovered late one night while browsing through your TV channels. But under a stronger direction, the story depth could have been something more, because one way or another, you’ve have seen better.
COLOR OUT OF SPACE screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. UK release date TBC.