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"Color Out of Space" (2020) - Review

Ethan is a screenwriter in Lincoln, NE. Studied Film and Media Studies at Arizona State Unversity with an emphasis on writing.

color-out-of-space-2020-review

Directed by Richard Stanley

Genre - Horror/Sci-Fi

Runtime – 1h 51m

Motifs – Celestial bodies and the uncontrollable unknown

Content Warning – Body horror, Nihilism, Lovecraft is a terrible person.

General Thoughts

Lovecraft's writings are practically impossible to create a faithful film adaptation – he uses words like "impossible," "unknown," and "they feel." In screenwriting, one can only write what the audience will see/understand (or, at least, in the classical Hollywood style). Thus, Lovecraft's description of the antagonizing deity that befell the countryside farmhouse: "…as the column of unknown colour flared suddenly stronger and began tow eave itself into fantastic suggestions of shape which each spectator later described differently, there came from the poor tethered Hero such a sound as no man before or since ever heard from a horse." How does a screenwriter portray "suggestions of shape"? This question is the heart of the film – it is a terrible adaptation, but an enjoyable movie. With this in consideration, I am splitting this review into two. The general thoughts section will detail how the film relates to its source work, and the criterion will judge the movie based solely on its own merits.

If considering viewing the movie hoping for a cerebral descent into madness with celestial monsters, then Color Out of Space meets only portions of that desire. There are monsters, there is madness, and it does have a celestial tone. What is missing is depth. Depth to the madness and monsters is simply gone and replaced with a campy horror film with mostly superficial ties to the short story. Camp has its place in the hearts of many. However, Stanley's film (as is the case with the majority of Stanley's work) ultimately takes a goofier look at the horror industry.

I made a mistake in viewing this film, and the error may have inadvertently affected my opinion of the film: I read H.P. Lovecraft's The Color Out of Space (1927) just before watching the movie. I do not regret reading the story by any means – it is brimming with dread, isolation, and the quintessential unknown factor. I will admit now that reading the story did not prepare me for the colorfully goofy film adaptation. Subsequently, I am inclined to write this review as a comparison between the short story and the film (since I very obviously prefer one over the other).

If one has read the short story before, then they will be sorely disappointed in this film. Nevertheless, even if one has not read the story, they may find themselves divided still.

Criterion Review

Narrative – 5/10

Color Out of Space is a film less about the disturbing concept of a profoundly uncaring universe and instead seeks to expose the uncanny familiarity of our human weaknesses.

Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) and his family must confront their deepest, most repressed selves when a meteor strikes the front yard of their secluded New England farm. The effects of the meteor gain increasing intensity as time goes by – strange smells, an unending whistling sound that permeates the entire run time, mutated animals, and an unusual purple/pink color that infests the air around them. In the beginning, we see the family acting much stranger and builds tension quite beautifully. Before the meteor, the family confided in each other with their concerns – for instance, Theresa Gardner (Joely Richardson), the mother, has a conversation with her husband, Nathan, about her sexuality post-mastectomy. We learn how unique these characters are – the eldest son is a stoner, the middle daughter is a fan of the occult, and the youngest son is quirky. It is in these early, act one moments where we feel endeared to this family. The film does this relatively well. The dialogue can garner particularly mixed responses from the audience depending on their taste for cheesy/campy speech and overly dramatic sequences. The narrative pacing builds on a kind of impending doom - a stark feeling that this family we now know and enjoy will inevitably find darkness.

After these introductions and after the meteor hits the home, one will find the Daily Gauntlet's most substantial criticisms of the film. The steadily building and tense moments are now practically gone. There are no somber moments between the family members because they are now physically separated from each other for one reason or another. Strangeness occurs – colorful mutations of the animals, the youngest son, are now whistling at his "friend" in the water well. The rest feel increasingly aggressive towards each other. However, there is no tension – just pure awe. The audience members (nor the characters) are not aware of why these strange things are occurring - that is the point of the film. The risk that comes from foregoing these explanations is the risk audiences may feel disconnected from a film – as opposed to the intended effect of feeling disconnected from the universe and identity. What is sorely needed here is continued interaction between the family members as they experience these oddities. Since Nathan and Theresa leave home for an hour of the film's runtime, these interactions disappear.

However, once Nathan and Theresa return home and the third act begins, the film goes mad. The unfamiliar color permeates the entire landscape, animals are grotesque in appearance, and the main characters are…for a lack of a better word, gone. Forever engulfed in their weaknesses and preyed upon by an unstoppable celestial deity, the family's only option is to hold dear to whatever remains of their humanity. There are significant spoilers in this portion of the film; thus, specific narrative detail will be absent. However, admittedly, these last moments of the film are incredibly refreshing after the dullness that was the middle part.

Throughout the run time of the film, there is one thing that is clear: this movie does not take itself seriously. If there is a grand lesson to be learned from the film, then it is buried beneath a substantial layer of camp. Character actions betray and contradict their already-set-up personality. Dialogue ranges in quality between barely tolerable and outright awful. Camp is a compelling way to tell a story; there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Horror has a lengthy history with this highly exaggerated, aesthetic style that appeals to its ironic value. Camp is the love of the excessive, not the real. The narrative follows a strange path that deviates from what we believe to be the reality. Subsequently, the audience makes a conscious choice to either lean into the camp or become disconnected from the story itself and stand in awe of the film's vision. It is clear Stanley decided for the audience though – lean in to enjoy the narrative. This decision to allow for a singular tone in this horror movie means the film offers very little in terms of narrative complexity.

Without a tense connective tissue between the somber beginning and the maddingly indulgent ending, one cannot say the narrative is as concise or as compelling as it likely could have been. Still, the buildup of tension in the first act, and the insanity of the third are so enjoyable that the film is worthy of some recognition here. Condemnation of a film that succeeds in its introduction, buildup, and the eventual payoff would make for a strange review indeed – but sustaining this tension throughout the runtime until the payoff is critical. The combination of a lack of consistent tension and an awkward attempt at campiness leads this reviewer to believe the narrative quality was not a priority to the filmmakers.

Cinematography – 7/10

I will keep this section brief because there is nothing unique happening in terms of camera movement. Most of what we see in Color Out of Space are static shots (the frame does not move; characters move in and out of the stationary camera). Audiences will not be distracted by the camera movement; scenes frame with actions centered in logical places; so, there is nothing to criticize but also nothing to acknowledge. The cinematography here is purely adequate filmmaking.

Film Design – 9/10

Despite what the general thoughts section details about how impossible it is to adapt Lovecraftian works faithfully, Color Out of Space is significantly more faithful in aesthetic than any other Lovecraftian adaptation that came before it. While concept designers cannot feasibly create a color unknown to the human imagination, they can still create the mystical atmosphere of the colors and mutations to significant effect. Despite the pacing flaws in the narrative, the film is gorgeous, seemingly despite the body horror shown near the end of the film. Of course, there are computer-generated elements to this atmosphere, but there are several practical effects (the size of vegetation and mutated animals, for example).

The only criticism I have for this film in its design is how poorly the computer-generation looks. Now, this criticism could be unfounded since the budget of the film is a measly $6-12 million (for comparison, the average drama film could cost $30-50 million). The apparent thought that proceeds the consideration of the film's budget is – why not spend it more effectively? Do we need to see pink CGI insects? Some of the CGI works very well, but the instances that do not poison the whole barrel. In an otherwise beautifully designed film, distractingly poor CGI detracts from the otherwise perfect score.

Performances – 8/10

Camp is a fascinating quality to have in a film dealing with the celestial unknown. On the one hand, there is this dread the family is supposed to feel about how meaningless their actions. On the other, the characters portray this dread in such an exaggerated way that it presents itself less as dread, and more as comical insanity. The core example I point to is Nicolas Cage's performance. I admit it is difficult to put into words how simultaneously strange and endearing Cage's performance is. He must somehow seamlessly portray a person who transitions between a loving father, a hateful representation of his abusive father, and a terrified human being all in a few moments. Instead of a more-realistic, gradual descent into the terror the character Nathan finds himself in, he leaps between sanity and insanity frantically and almost randomly. Nathan is proud and ecstatic to have grown huge vegetables; then, he practically immediately dunks all of those vegetables into the trash can like he is a member of the Globetrotters preaching the evils of healthy eating. Nathan can be so hateful towards his family that it becomes clear that Cage is trying to draw connections between an image of oneself that seeks so desperately to avoid reflecting a traumatic figure from their past that they are regrettably ultimately becoming that traumatic figure. In these moments, the awkwardness of the narrative's campier elements clashes with an amazingly deep character arc about becoming what one fears the most. It is a strange clash to be sure. While Cage's performance is wholeheartedly enjoyable, can we divorce his performance from its context? Should we? Camp is impressive in this respect that it is almost immune from an objective review – it cannot be a universally bad quality in a film (primarily when the campy performances are quite adequately). The nature of camp is hyper-subjective.

Camp stems from one's tastes for the ironic – one's tolerance for the exaggerated reality. So, to promote a film or criticize a movie for its campy qualities would be a betrayal to the purpose of reviewing films – to determine whether one should watch it, not to decide whether or not the reviewer should watch it. As such, an audience member should consider how far they are willing to suspend their disbelief in watching a film before deciding to view it.

Cage's performance is the exception to the rule. While the other performers have brief moments of performative excellence, none are as consistent nor quite as compelling compared to each other (let alone compared to Cage). Cage is a pleasant sight, campy performances are personal and not for everyone; thus, an 8/10 adequately accounts for subjective tastes regarding campiness.

Editing – 6/10

Editing is the language of transition – not just between scenes, but also between shots. Whenever there is an issue in a film's narrative concerning the "pacing" of the story, editing is a possible culprit at the heart of the matter. If the editing team edits a scene with long, drawn-out sequences where nothing in particular happens, the film's pace grinds to a screeching halt. Additionally, if they sequence those "boring" scenes back-to-back, then you have an entire section of your movie where there is nothing of interest that keeps the audience's attention. Subsequently, the role of the editing team is to ensure the audience cannot justify looking away and also keep the filmmaking process itself invisible (editing should not be something the casual audience member notices).

In Color Out of Space, the strange events happening to the family present themselves in an equally odd order. There are several scenes with the youngest son, Jack (Julian Hillard), whistling or staring at the family well. If one were to estimate the amount of time the audience stares at a long-take of a child staring at a well, these moments would account for a total of 10 minutes of run time. Ten minutes of staring at nothing happening and listening to the same whistling sound we have heard for the past half an hour (this whistling is a consistent audio motif, and you can listen to it throughout the film). Lest to say, these sequences are virtually meaningless after the first few times we witness Jack becoming increasingly obsessed with the well. Oddly enough, these sequences usually happen after something horrifying happens to a member of the family. The entire second act is teeming with chains like this: farm animals have mysteriously escaped, the well, bugs are pink now, the well, vegetation is growing at unusual sizes, the well, and so. In conjunction with narrative pacing issues, the stitching together of scenes in editing is at fault for the lackadaisical pacing of the second act.

In addition to those scene transitions, editing plays a role in how the audience perceives the scenes themselves. There is a moment where a monster engages with one of the children, but the image moves between multiple different shots at blazingly quick speeds that the audience has virtually no idea what happened, just an implication of what had happened. These clunky, fast-paced moments permeate the third act entirely.

It is incredibly hard for an audience member to notice awkward editing choices. The best way to gauge the quality of editing is to see when the film loses the audience's attention or feels confusing about what is happening on screen. Because the editing choices can detract from the overall experiences, but still have a basic narrative structure despite those choices, the score reflects a slightly below average editing performance.

Cumulative Rating: 35/50 – Average; consider viewing with reservations.

Additional Resources:

If you are interested in learning more about camp culture, here is an essay that describes it in much more detail: https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf

Here is the pdf version of the original Lovecraft short story: https://repositorio.ufsc.br/bitstream/handle/123456789/163740/H.%20P.%20Lovecraft%20-The%20Colour%20out%20of%20Space.pdf?sequence=1