[Fantastic Fest review] ‘COLOR OUT OF SPACE’ a tasty bowl of WTF soup


Preston Barta // Features Editor


Not rated, 111 minutes.
Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher and Tommy Chong

Oh, Richard Stanley. How we have missed your intoxicating weirdness.

After his departure from 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (check out the 2014 documentary Lost Soul for the full scoop), Stanley put his focus into his short films, documentaries and writing. But now he’s back at the helm, and he’s directing shout-master Nicolas Cage in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, no less.

Stanley’s eccentric storytelling abilities are a seamless fit for Lovecraft. He proves that early on in his telling of the writer’s 1927 sci-fi short story Color Out of Space. Stanley statically captures the country land and rivers outside the fictional Massachusetts town of Arkham (no connection to DC Comics, but often featured in other Lovecraft works). The scenic landscapes may be worthy of your desktop background, but the smoky haze and strange hues show evil lurks in the darkness.

The film opens with a rebellious teenager named Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performing a Wiccan ritual at a riverside. She is calling upon forces to ease her mom’s cancerous pain before she is interrupted by a handsome young surveyor (Elliot Knight). The mysterious man is Ward, a hydrologist sent to the region to test the water levels. He also serves as the audience surrogate, guiding us through the character introductions and inevitable terrors. We learn through him that Lavinia and her family are the only people who live in the area, along with the kooky, off-the-grid hippie Ezra (Tommy Chong).

After their brief encounter, Lavinia returns home before nightfall, where we meet the rest of the Gardners. There’s her father Nathan (Nicolas Cage), who moved the family into his father’s old farmhouse. He renovated it with a touch that would probably make Chip and Joanna Gaines smirk. Nathan grows tomatoes in the garden and tends to his treasured alpacas.

Lavinia’s workaholic mother Theresa (Joely Richardson) has many insecurities about herself because of her recent medical operation. She tries to tuck that away by burying herself in work, which is taking calls all day long in a dimly lit upstairs room. But Nathan does not give up on her and continues to look for ways to reignite the romantic spark.

Completing the family are Lavinia’s brothers, Benny (Brendan Meyer of The Guest) and Jack (Julian Hilliard of The Haunting of Hill House). Benny is an adolescent who copes with his new living situation by smoking the devil’s lettuce (in the barn, or with Ezra), while little Jack is a mama’s boy who is too young to care about the life change.

The story shifts into gear when a meteorite falls on the Gardner farm. It lands and brings about some strange happenings, including contaminated water, absent-mindedness and unusual behaviors. What seems like an exciting discovery soon liquefies into a bloody cocktail with splashes of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Alex Garland’s Annihilation (works that were likely inspired by Lovecraft).

No matter what I say, there is no preparing you for this space oddity. The film’s first act is a bit of a mess with its stilted dialogue and uninspired characterization. However, once the meteorite hits, eccentricity is on full blast.

Cage’s line deliveries give the film a considerable amount of juice. There is one scene that is rather calm and collected that takes a sharp turn in the other direction. Seemingly out of nowhere, Cage comically yells about the importance of milking his alpacas. It resembles the time when George W. Bush shouted during a press conference about a park in Botswana.

Cage is always adding a unique flavor to his projects. In Color Out of Space, he dons Jack Torrance’s madness from The Shining, but with the voice of Donald Trump. It is so bizarre, but it keeps you glued to his performance. I mean, if you are nose-diving into the Twilight Zone, you might as well cut a little rug — and Cage certainly does.

For a movie with an alleged $6 million budget, Color Out of Space has a slick polish. Some computer-generated effects look cheap (most notably when the otherworldly colors from the meteorite spread like a virus across the land), but there are also practical effects that amaze. It’s as if Stanley brought old-school tricks to new-school horror. Without getting into the specifics, there are two scenes of terror that are for nightmares only, and they feature practically made creations.

Color Out of Space may be too out-there for casual filmgoers. There are familiar beats that have (admittedly) been explored better in other cinematic cosmoses. But Stanley elevates the material and manages to generate a few spooks (one quick overhead shot of something crawling on the wood floors will do the trick, big time).

The actors also deserve praise for their committed performances. It’s hard to imagine these talents making sense of this film’s silly antics, but they play it straight (with the occasional dip in the cartoon pool).

All that said, COLOR OUT OF SPACE is a tasty bowl of WTF soup.

Grade: B-

COLOR OUT OF SPACE had its regional premiere over the weekend at Fantastic Fest, but encore screenings will be held on September 23 at 11:30 p.m. and September 24 at 11 a.m. Visit fantasticfest.com for more information.

UPDATE: RLJE Films will release the film for a limited theatrical run on Jan. 24, 2020.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.