If we were to tell you that a new sci-fi thriller is about what happens when a sinister outside force intrudes into a peaceful country setting and immediately begins to poison the environment by soaking the ground with toxic liquid, causing disturbing mutations in plants, animals, and human beings, you might say: “Wait a minute, we’ve already seen that one. It’s Dark Waters.”
Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space does indeed share similar plot developments with Todd Haynes’ ecological tale of woe, which was in theaters less than two months ago. Haynes’ destructive invader was the predatory chemical company Dupont, a truly terrifying, unstoppable foe, intent on profit no matter how many cows it kills and how many lawyers fight it.
By contrast, the meteorite that lands in the front yard of Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) — a slightly vague, middle-aged gentleman farmer in rural Massachusetts who raises alpacas with the help of his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) and their three children — is easier to understand, almost benign. As far as we can see, the outer-space meteorite’s major objective is to provoke laughter. Color Out of Space is an environmental horror fantasy for stoners.
The dazed confusion begins early, when we witness a pagan ritual performed by Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Nathan’s teenage Wiccan daughter, who calls on nature to protect her mother from cancer. Later that night, a large chunk of glowing cosmic debris crashes into the family farm and strange things begin to happen. Foul-smelling well water. Odd, disorienting electrical impulses. Unusual flowers and vegetables in the garden. Brilliantly colored insects. A kitchen sink overflowing with blood. Mutant alpacas. Theresa idly chopping off two of her fingers while dicing carrots. That sort of thing.
It should come as a surprise to no one that director Stanley’s latest — he co-wrote the screenplay with alt-horror hand Scarlett Amaris — is adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. That prolific author of shock fiction (1890-1937) has been the inspiration for a riot of lurid, gory movies, perhaps most notably the Re-Animator series. There’s the same degree of fast, carefree mayhem at play in Color Out of Space (awkward title, but it’s taken directly from Lovecraft). The new film’s resident sage is a character named Ezra (hyper-enthusiastic Tommy Chong), a grizzled hermit who dispenses wisdom from his enchanted hut in the forest. The local hydrologist (Elliot Knight), who sports a Miskatonic University T-shirt — a favorite Lovecraft movie reference — is named “Ward Phillips,” after one of the author’s pseudonyms.
But none of the psychedelic visuals and mayhem would mean anything without the daffy character acting of Cage and Richardson. Nathan comes unglued at a steady pace, initially complaining about the evil liquid soap in his shower and the scaly skin on his arms, and then devolving into the Nicolas Cage we recognize from a filmography populated with nut jobs. Every routine task Nathan performs is a potential disaster. Was Cage stoned on the set? Likewise Richardson’s not-quite-all-there Theresa, who brushes aside the loss of her fingers as if it were a hangnail. Whatever got into the ground water is driving this family crazy by leaps and bounds. Even the young witch Lavinia, channeling Aubrey Plaza, carves mystic symbols into her skin.
The movie’s ending is poor. Filmmaker Stanley, notorious for being fired in the midst of directing The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), evidently has some kinks that need to be ironed out in a B-level project like this. He borrows merrily from everywhere: the cinema of Stuart Gordon (director of the original Re-Animator); Hereditary; Cage’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; the Poltergeist pics; the Living Dead franchise, etc. And yet there’s a restrained helter-skelter to his Lovecraft tribute that ingratiates it as we watch Nathan’s farm fall to pieces. Color Out of Space, exactly the type of movie we look forward to in the post-holiday, pre-Oscars dead zone, has one or two old, reliable tricks up its sleeve. It’s an allegory on the state of the American family as well as a pollution warning, but we’ll never complain. Most of the movies made in the past year covered the same subjects.