revew: Color Out of Space – Richard Stanley
Color Out of Space/
screenplay Scarlett Amaris, Richard Stanley/
director Richard Stanley/
Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space follows Lovecraftian tradition. Protagonist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) is largely absent from the action of the plot. A hydrologist conducting a survey, he arrives at the beginning of things and quickly becomes a stunned witness of events beyond his understanding or control. He spends most of the story trying to find answers to questions which are too small to be useful. Meanwhile, the invaded party in the film – the American nuclear family and homestead – is picked apart and collapses.
H.P. Lovecraft’s external horrors were often terrestrial, too. Many of his stories involve small communities or households, corrupted and twisted by the interruption of racialised characteristics. The gaping and terrible universe is a source of horrors which in Lovecraft sublimate racist anxieties about the breadth of the world, and the North American continent in the early 20th century. Stanley’s film recreates this horror of the unfamiliar but shifts the locus ironically to the family itself.
Home life for the Gardner family is uncomplicated. Truly nuclear, they live one hour’s drive from the nearest town and the two parents and three children share maintenance of the home and land the father, Nathan has inherited. When a meteor lands, after the initial shock it is met with irritation and frustration. Of the crater it forms, Nicolas Cage’s Nathan laments, “That used to be my front yard.” Its biggest impact, to begin with, is aesthetic. This is important; earlier in the film Nathan voices his disappointment in doing what he never said he would – in inheriting and living on his father’s land. Theresa, his wife, reassures him that his father “wouldn’t recognise the place” after the work they’ve done to it. Nathan repeats later on, “I am not my father.” He is a lapsed hippy, desperate to create something new with his family and eschew the traditional role of overbearing and expectant patriarch. At first, he seems to manage this; his and Theresa’s parenting is lassez-faire but respectful, with clear jobs for each family member.
The family’s isolation from 21st century America is false, though. Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is the breadwinner for her husband and children; she trades stocks in their attic over a shoddy internet connection. Though the meteorite which interrupts their life brings mutational chaos to their front door, their lives all already depend on the half-predictable mutations of the stock market. Chaos and growth dictates their biological lives, too. Theresa is recovering from a mastectomy and her daughter Lavina (Madeleine Arthur) first appears while casting a Wiccan spell to purge her mother of cancer. Lavinia is Ward’s (and our) first encounter with the Gardners. Once we meet the rest of them we see that Lavinia is the only family member remotely interested in the occult. In fact, the Gardner clan is divided on a fundamental level. Though they are family, they share no common outlook. There is no group ‘Gardner’ identity. This individualism will be exploited.
When the meteorite arrives, it seeps the titular ‘Color’ into the ground, into the water. It corrupts and exacerbates the elements that keep the Gardner family separate from each other.
Richard Stanley and Scarlett Amaris’s screenplay concerns itself with women’s bodies. Outwardly, the eldest Gardner child, Benny (Brendan Meyer), is unaffected by the Color. Nathan only develops a rash, briefly some lumps. His tomatoes and peaches grow rapidly but taste wrong. He bites them, spits them out and hurls them in the bin while raving at Theresa, who shouts herself for him to fix the internet connection. Benny’s dog disappears and he searches for it in vain. The effect the Color has on the men is external. Both women in the family bleed.
Theresa cuts her fingers clean off while domestically chopping carrots, in some trance. She still hasn’t noticed when she raises her mutilated hand to wave, “Dinner’s ready.” Earlier, in the film’s second act, Theresa and Lavinia stand in the kitchen together looking out the window camera left. Their right arms are both raised, pointing toward the meteorite outside. They do not make eye contact. We know that since her mastectomy Theresa is alienated from her body, and finds it difficult to believe her husband desires her sexually. We have already seen Lavinia try to work what power she has over her mother’s body, too. Neither of them trusts it. When the Color works on Theresa, she absorbs the youngest Gardner, Jack, into her body and becomes a painful twisted lump first tortured, then monstrous, hungry, mad and in the attic.
In her conversation with Theresa in the kitchen, Lavinia is virgin-coded. She holds an apple while her mother criticises how she is dressed and the unseemly amount of interest she shows in Ward. Lavinia sheds her blood deliberately, in ritual. She carves her skin with symbols as part of another spell, bargaining for her own safety and protection, but not her family’s. The Color’s work on Lavinia is to possess her before she disintegrates. Her physical transformation is unique in that it is self-wrought. Her bid for control over her body grants her a dignity in assimilation the rest of her family are denied.
As the Color spreads through the land and the family, they fail to work together. They talk across each other or abandon shared tasks when distracted by some new idea. They adopt their individual strategies – Lavina her rituals, Nathan his shotgun – and pull themselves apart. In the latter part of the film’s fourth act, the characters suffer and degrade alone. These divisions were always a part of how they lived their lives. Theresa always worked in the attic, Benny always wandered off to get stoned, Lavinia always harboured dreams of running away. The Color does not separate them, it simply presents a problem they cannot solve. Maybe if they managed to work together they could have lasted longer, but that was never a possibility.
The Gardners are isolated not only physically but ideologically. In seeking to create a family model anew, they have cut off connections; they mutate and turn in on themselves. In the film’s climax, Nathan insists the family are still present, suggests Nathan join them. The nuclear family unit becomes a cipher through which he views everything, it is the ether he moves through, the logic through which everything is interpreted. When something arrives from the outside and cannot be assimilated he breaks down, screams and chases like a horrible animal. His logic was fine in times of stability, but in the face of extraterrestrial horror, it is useless.
Ward’s character becomes symbolic of the powerlessness of the state or government to mediate in matters between private individuals. His first appearance he is chided by Lavinia for being on “private property.” When he suspects a dangerous element in the water, the best he can do is suggest they not drink it, a suggestion they are all too preoccupied to hear. It is of course too late in any case – the Color is in the air, dilating time itself.
The philosophy of the Gardners and Ward shares common ground in that they are both convinced they can find a way to deal with things. They try solutions without consulting each other on them – they believe the Color can be understood and defeated, running is not considered an option until much too late. They simply do not believe in a threat being insurmountable and try to stay and resist. Their faith in the idea of home and family blinds them. Ward’s actions are all impotent and he is lucky to survive. He follows his practice, takes a sample to be analysed, reasons with a discovered pile of coalesced, tortured woodland creatures as if it can be made sense of.
In the end, the Color is not defeated, but joined. Though the Gardners do not leave home, they all die alone, separated by their individual actions. The Color becomes them all, with the power of being a larger, unfathomable whole. It goes away but it seems to do so of its own volition, a burning pink column stretching up into space. Then nothing. The whole family is gone.
I struggle to decide what the horror of Color Out of Space is. The family are destroyed by their enacting of individualism, sure, but what could have combated the Color? Perhaps their death was inevitable but by some other model of living could have been more noble, less in the manner of a scattering pack of rats. This film exposes a terrestrial unease; in times of crisis and threat, one cannot rely even on those closest to you, if you are not a unit. The family’s diverging plot lines make the film feel messy, but the situation is messy, and I think the messy selfishness of their lives is the worst part of the horror. Their orbits are aligned but unconnected. Even in the knowledge of the threat, they cannot connect, cannot speak to each other, cannot save each other.
A reservoir is built, flooding the Gardner’s land and Ward’s recourse at the film’s end is to not drink the water. He understands the presence of life on other worlds, but can do nothing to understand or resist it. The best he can do is keep away from it. He is able to preserve himself, but it is totally beyond his understanding how to shield others from the horrors he knows are out there.