Starfish. 2019. Directed & Written by Al White.
Starring Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, Eric Beecroft, Natalie Mitchell, Shannon Hollander, Elias Brett, & Tanroh Ishida.
We Are Tessellate / 3Roundburst Productions / Spellbound Entertainment
Not Rated. 99 minutes.
Drama / Horror / Sci-Fi
There are many apocalyptic/post-apocalypse stories in cinema. The sub-genre’s diverse: action-adventure disasters about asteroids headed to destroy Earth (Armageddon/Deep Impact); the many zombie films; dystopian futures like Cormac McCarthy’s bleak The Road brought to grim life by John Hilcoat; or, high-tech concept thrillers like Snowpiercer. These are only a handful of examples. Because the apocalypse is different to everybody, whether it’s horror fans, religious fanatics, or nihilists.
Al White’s debut feature Starfish is a singular view of the apocalypse, framed through the perspective of a woman— Aubrey, played by Virginia Gardner (Marvel’s Runaways, David Gordon Green’s Halloween)— also experiencing her own personal world’s collapse following the death of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson).
What starts as a story with a solid plot becomes more abstract the further it stretches on, and what was once the story of an apocalyptic event becomes more about the devastating psychological headspace— or, world— in which Aubrey’s come to exist. Then the film becomes about how she can either escape it, or wallow in it, or worse. White uses the apocalypse as a cosmic allegory for the grief’s devastating power, and the imagery he chooses— starfish, jellyfish, Moby Dick, otherworldly creatures, Galileo— all speak to the regions of our psyche where grief, and guilt, often hide to our detriment.
Everything begins with Grace’s funeral. The apocalypse’s allegorical context is clear fairly early. Convenient the world ends the morning after the funeral, showing the link between the end of the world and Aubrey’s personal world ending. Even more interesting considering she’s spent the night in her dead friend’s apartment. When Aubrey wakes the next morning it’s literally like opening her eyes to a whole other world. This sets up her apocalyptic grief.
Aubrey sinks into depression— later we discover it’s more than Grace’s death fuelling it— and becomes increasingly isolated. Her isolation takes form in the apocalyptic event keeping her inside. Suddenly, she can’t go out for fear there are terrifying creatures lurking. A massive jellyfish-like mammoth towers over the town. She’s nearly chomped by an angry dog-thing that could’ve come out of a Resident Evil game. Aubrey feels safe and comfortable in her secluded little world. Ultimately, it’s about dissociation— “pulling away from the world,” as well as other people and oneself.
The theme of dissociation comes out explicitly when Aubrey imagines herself talking to Grace. There are far more interesting moments that feed into this theme, too. One is the animated sequence, done by Tezuka Productions (Astro Boy). It might feel like a strange scene out of nowhere. To a degree, it is— though one with purpose. In an interview with Father Gore, director Al White confirmed as much, stating the animated sequence was about the concept of dissociation. How much further can a person get from themselves than to become an animated character? Another step Aubrey takes away from herself, and away from the world she knew.
One more scene in this vein involves a wonderfully intelligent moment of metafiction. While Aubrey’s travelling from one landscape to another, she ends up in a studio where there’s a film being shot: Starfish. An even better instance of dissociation. Aubrey’s gotten so far away from herself and the world she’s in a staged recreation of her life, framing her own struggle as yet another piece of fiction to be told.
“If you can dream— and not make dreams your master;
If you can think— and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…”
— Rudyard Kipling, “If”
Stories are important. That’s why White includes famous storytellers in his film, such as Rudyard Kipling and his poem “If.” More important is the presence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, from which Aubrey actually reads. This text is part of a broader theme that links the sea and sky together.
White draws on sea imagery in many scenes. Moby Dick parallels Aubrey’s own journey by subtly suggesting she’s a Captain Ahab figure. The giant creature passing over her city— representative of depression, grief, guilt, all looming over her— is akin to the White Whale she’s attempting to conquer. Either of the creatures become a White Whale, standing in for the psychological pain Aubrey’s trying to eradicate.
There’s also the literal starfish, alongside the jellyfish in Grace’s apartment. Interesting symbols when they’re looked at in a spiritual context. In dreams, jellyfish can symbolise painful memories rising from our unconscious. Similarly, the starfish’s physical characteristics make it an easy metaphor for healing or regeneration. These two creatures are symbolic for Aubrey, who has to deal with those difficult memories breaching her conscious mind. Hopefully after that, she can heal.
Juxtaposed with the sea are images of the sky, such as the creatures themselves who’ve presumably come from another dimension. If we consider this in terms of cosmic horror and Lovecraftian mythology, these creatures are “something older than us” and signify Earth’s insignificance in the face of a vast, ancient universe, suggesting so much out there remains unknown. Then there’s Grace’s apartment, which has a telescope, even if Aubrey only uses it to spy on a couple fucking. Her apartment also contains a visible Galileo quote on the wall— Galileo being the most famous astronomer to have ever lived.
What connects the sea and sky imagery? A visual connection comes out of the anime sequence. Animated Aubrey drops out of the sky, falls into the sea, and sinks towards the ocean floor. Thematic connection’s derived from the idea of sea and sky as unexplored spaces, same as the psychological spaces left unexplored in Aubrey.
The vastness of the sea and outer space means there’s a significant amount of both, especially space, that’s been left unexplored. There are so many things we don’t yet know about them. This relates to the unexplored, or unconfronted, pain in Aubrey’s past she’s been unable to face until Grace’s death forces her into an isolated world of apocalyptic grief where she has no other choice but face it or continue to fear it.
Once Aubrey does explore her own mind, she comes to grips with the creatures lurking in her past. These aren’t creatures of the apocalypse, they’re monsters made of her own guilt. The picture below is taken from the scene depicting Aubrey’s infidelity. Instead of a man in the water, as he appears throughout the rest of the scene, the viewer sees a strange, horrifying thing like a skeleton with sagging skin— a figurative skeleton, out of the closet. While the real memory plays out around her, Aubrey, like she’s in a lucid dream, goes out into the water and drowns the awful thing, ending her guilt. Afterwards, in a symbolic gesture, she finalises her catharsis by not only stepping out of isolation, she steps into an entirely new world, leaving the creature, the grief, and the guilt behind her in that figurative, devastated apocalypse.
Admittedly, those seeking a traditional tale of apocalypse and monsters probably won’t find what they’re looking for, and, really, the horror/sci-fi elements of the plot are incidental to the story as a whole. There are many readings to find within the film. The general premise remains intended as an allegory. White doesn’t go allegorical for the sake of being deep. It’s a uniquely personal vision of one person’s world ending and how that can feel as big and as tangible as an actual apocalypse.
An exciting part of Starfish is that, with ambiguity and abstract concepts floating around, every viewer can read what they will into the imagery and symbolism. White’s film is a window into grief— one through which we can witness our own struggles. The existential journey Aubrey takes is one everybody can relate to, because death, and our grief over it, is a big part of life. We all deal with it in our respective ways. It’s chaotic, messy, and often terrifying. If we’re not careful, it can trap us, even destroy us. If we’re lucky, and we’re strong enough, it becomes a landmark on the canvas of our lives. We carry it with us the rest of our lives. It transforms into an experience that makes us stronger and smarter instead of rendering us powerless and weak. Aubrey’s cathartic finale is confirmation that grief only feels like the end of a world. In reality, it’s only the end of ONE world, we simply have to find the courage to move onto a new one.