For all the sci-fi lore in recent filmmaking triumphs and blunders, I will admit my education on the literary side needs a bit more refinement. To experience a film directly adapted from the eccentric work of one H.P. Lovecraft, and not have much of a grasp of his masterwork, what may automatically stand as the definitive film adaptation of Color Out of Space, was a cold-water shock to the system. Even so, for its faults, there’s plenty of frightening, nightmare-inducing catharsis to be discovered, in the long-overdue return for a filmmaker shunned by Hollywood, but not having burned the bridges he walked away from.
Lovecraft’s concept not so much leaps off the page, as it dances around. High concept, nearly high effort that will test one’s attention span. And it begins with Nicolas Cage at his most adept. He takes on the role of Nathan Gardner, doting farmer and family man looking to take his brood away from the big city and into the countryside. Arkham, Massachusetts, to be exact. It’s the ideal small-town atmosphere he, his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), and their three kids, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hillard) feel most comfortable in. And where the patriarch will try to express his creative abilities in a new arena, festering with alpacas and sheep: gardening, in place of failed paintings. And it’s almost perfect, until a bright pink meteor crashes in their farmhouse, tinkers with the water supply, and causes the animals to run amok.
It bears the likeness of a faithful adaptation from tip to tail, something director Richard Stanley should be most proud of. He has clawed his way back into the high end of filmmaking prominence after Hollywood had turned their noses down on him in the wake of his involvement in that 90s blunder of an Island of Dr. Moreau remake. Stanley has maintained steady work as a writer and director in the 24 years since, but not quite anything that could go beyond a below-the-radar indie film. Space needn’t be a triumphant comeback, more of a valid re-entry point for Stanley back into the mainstream. Utilizing a mid-level budget where not a single dollar isn’t used properly, between a capable character-driven cast, and the attention to detail a sci-fi masterwork craves. Both excel handsomely, the film’s genuine look, feel, and dramatic energy assured.
However, Stanley and co-writer Scarlet Amaris appear to show a few struggles here and there on the bare bones of adapting Lovecraft’s short story, keeping the basic points, but also inciting an inconsistent wavelength that may have caused my attention to wander and skew away at various points somewhat. At the start, with the family at the forefront, I felt very invested, like we were seeing a genuine horror film where combating high adversity (ala The Conjuring) is key. But then introduce said adversity, with its negative effects across the whole farm, and then my mind just fizzles away, disconnecting rather painfully from the action. Almost like my brain had been forced to accept a completely different film at the midway point.
And this otherwise blissfully random change in tone does not help our cast, or their characters to grow beyond what we must take from them at face value. Cage, bless his heart for going full-on rage when he can, is denied any opportunity to release his full-on potential. Does he deserve better? Perhaps. Though I’ve no doubt whatever role Cage takes on next this year will balance out the universal karma. Richardson’s part is perhaps more of a throwaway, the doting matriarch and a cancer survivor also looking toward a new calling, only to find herself in a non-organic subplot that did not mix well. Among the kids, it’s perhaps Hilliard, the youngster who stole the show in last year’s delightful microbudget horror-comedy Greener Grass, who carries the most charisma and the most menace without much to say. It’s more a physical thing, every time the camera zooms close to him. There’s that natural sense of a “harbinger of fate”, one of the best moments when I did sense truly mortal terror in my viewing, through his performance. And I’m sure he’ll have a great career ahead with the right roles.
Though I may not be able to say the same for the cast’s outliers, a byproduct of that attempt to diversify the plot, and in turn, lessen its effect as sci-fi horror. Tommy Chong, the great stoner comedian makes a welcome turn as a nearby neighbor later possessed by the effects of the asteroid, but easily predicts certain events ahead of them being played out. Something that Ward (Elliot Knight), a roving biologist and documentarian fixates on as he investigates Arkham’s sudden wild goings-on. And yet his presence cannot save the rampant hodge-podge of a shift in tone that Stanley clearly struggles to keep in line.
It’s a crazy mess at points, that by the time it does get reorganized, any manner of fear and dread Lovecraft had better represent in his text is a little tougher to swallow visually. You feel scared, you sense that psychological resolve starts to slip with time. And yet, it’s all a bit hollow, bordering on lax, and too open-ended to really serve its purpose as definitive Lovecraft film lore. Color Out of Space could’ve been so much better, for multiple reasons. Chief among them, a lot more for Cage to work with. But for a director slowly reemerging out of obscurity, it is still a daring first step. A worthwhile effort that can win over new fans, please others, and confuse everyone over its wasted potential. It’s not a perfect sci-fi effort, but you can’t deny the passion involved while daring to be more unique as an indie genre tale. And considering how early we are in this new cinematic decade, if we see more diverse methods of genre-heavy storytelling, the future may be looking very bright. And very pink. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Color Out of Space plays a limited run this week at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian, debuting online and in stores February 25; film not rated; 111 minutes.