Color Out of Space. 2020. Directed by Richard Stanley. Screenplay by Stanley & Scarlett Amaris. Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong, Madeleine Arthur, Julian Hilliard, Brendan Meyer, & Elliot Knight.
SpectreVision / ACE Pictures Entertainment / BRO Cinema
Rated 18A (Canada) / 111 minutes
Horror / Sci-Fi
Similar to problems with more than a few Stephen King adaptations, most adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft result in either abysmal results or a lukewarm understanding of what Lovecraftian actually means outside tentacled things lurking in the darkness. Enter Richard Stanley, one of the most wonderfully strange minds in horror cinema. His long absence as a feature film director has come to an end with this truly unique and interesting adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” a sci-fi horror short story that packs a mean punch.
Stanley’s Color Out of Space is a glimpse at the torturous environmental trials of the Gardners. Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) moved their family— which includes daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and sons, Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard)— out of the city and into the countryside. Things aren’t going the best, between Nathan’s crops offering little to nothing and Theresa continuing to deal with cancer issues post-mastectomy. Everything gets a little worse once a meteor falls from the sky and lands in the Gardners’ yard.
Suddenly life as the family knows it changes irreparably.
The difficulty with any Lovecraft adaptation is capturing the specific brand of existential dread in which the author trafficked. Stanley conjures a lot of that here, though at times the deeper, grimmer Lovecraftian dread still lies untouched. Nevertheless, the director uses Cage to his fullest extent and harnesses the actor’s strange energy to turn this story into an unsettling, psychedelic thrill ride. The screenplay keeps much of the original story intact, one way or another, expanding it to touch on pressing climate change issues we’re grappling with currently as a society. Cage’s family patriarch becomes like America’s current national patriarch, leading the Gardners down a path to destruction.
“… it wasn’t like any colour I’ve ever seen before.”
A reliance on capitalism has only sped up our killing of the environment. Since the Industrial Revolution, capitalists have avoided tough ethical questions about environmental practices and their impact because those questions would only impede progress. In countries like America, commerce is put above the safety and well-being of citizens, usually the most vulnerable. Stanley captures this through Q’orianka Kilcher’s character Mayor Tooma. The mayor only cares about a new freshwater reservoir being constructed in her town, the “largest infrastructure project” in its history. When she discovers, through hydrologist Ward (Elliot Knight), their town’s water source is potentially contaminated she ignores it because “contracts have already been signed,” preferring to deal with environmental fallout rather than financial ramifications.
But someone like Mayor Tooma is only working within the limitations of a system she’s been handed. The greater system around her was built, strengthened, and perpetuated by the patriarchy. Color Out of Space takes a particular interest in the damaging climate legacies handed down/left behind by patriarchal leaders, like the constant series of men who’ve run North America for centuries. Nathan mentions his “intellectually abusive” father, whose farm he and his family now live on, whose life he all but seems to be living. He drinks constantly, especially during times of stress. The alcohol becomes associated with his father, too. In one scene, he lays his glass down next to a picture of dear ole dad, dipping his fingers in the glass, and watching an environmental news segment featuring a climate change denier.
The most important moment is when Nathan, in a stupor, mumbles: “I know I‘m not my dad.” He’s actively trying to reject and resist the legacy of his dad, similar to how we, as a society, are attempting to do the same with the patriarchal legacies of everything from climate change to income inequality. And the film hinges on this attempted rejection. Occasionally, Cage takes on an affected tone sounding an awful lot like Trump, even gesturing with his hands strangely. In these moments, he reflects America’s national patriarch. His refusal to see the truth even as his crops are magically growing giant fruits and vegetables and his own skin is turning into an almost scaly patchwork is the same refusal of the U.S. government to recognise the error in its science-denying ways.
A couple important images are the belongings of Nathan’s father: the goggles and compass. These are symbolic of following the old ways, or the Old Guard. They’re symbols of how, by looking through the eyes of old men and following the same directions as their path, we’re simply retreading identical mistakes— like the famous adage that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Ward hanging onto the dusty compass at the very end is his gesture to the future: we will not repeat the mistakes of old white men. He recognises the destruction wrought by an unfaltering faith in patriarchy, and keeps the compass as a perpetual, physical reminder.
“I know I’m not my dad”
A significant aspect in Color Out of Space is human hubris, particularly that of Americans given national scale climate denial from regular citizens right up to the current President’s administration. Many humans are so sure we, as a species, are the top of the food chain, that Earth is the most important planet. In reality, like Lovecraft sensed and tried to depict in his work, there are likely far greater beings out there, both in size and intellect. It’s unadulterated narcissism for us to believe we’re the only, and most, intelligent life in the vast expanse of outer space. The Gardner family are a microcosm of America as a whole. The alien life force that’s come to their farm is a lesson, or “a messenger,” from deep space looking to teach humans before it’s too late.
The first lesson from outer space is about the interconnected-ness of all things in the universe. Man ignores climate change, so the very universe itself, to a horrific extent, illustrates the effects to those in the meteor’s path. When Theresa and Jack are hit by the magenta light their bodies begin to dissolve into one another, as if mom’s “trying to reassimilate” her youngest boy. The fusing of mother and son is a microcosm, depicting how each thing in an ecosystem is connected to the next, and how affecting one thing will have repercussions on another. People hear about extinct species’ and animals losing their habitats to climate change, but they think it’s fine because it’s not affecting them directly. They don’t understand the chain reaction in an ecosystem when one part of it changes or, worst case scenario, dies.
The second lesson is simple: change, or die. The Gardners are wiped off the planet, their home and the crater in which it’s left by alien forces is bulldozed over and flooded for the town’s new reservoir. Ward is able to escape the intergalactic massacre, just barely, and it’s because he’s willing to change, capable of comprehending the damage humans have done to this world and what it’ll bring should the damage continue.
For my money this is the best Lovecraft adaptation to date. Stanley’s Color Out of Space doesn’t always capture everything Lovecraftian. What it does do so well is expand upon the original short story to pull the author’s work into the 21st century, showing how horror can be both amazingly weird while also digging into social issues without losing any of its power. Cage’s strange mania fits the film well, and the rest of the cast does a fine job keeping up with him, too.
Horror is a great vehicle for delivering political and social issues in an exciting way, rather than solely listening to often highly reductive debates between ‘right’ and ‘left.’ At the same time, those who don’t care to take those sort of messages out of movies don’t have to read the film this way because it’s, at its core, a psychedelic experience meant to creep us out and unnerve the senses. Stanley’s films all have a genuinely unique quality and his esoteric storytelling is perhaps more alive here than in any of his previous work. His plan is to do a trilogy of Lovecraft. Let’s hope he brings the same energy to the other two as this effort. Color Out of Space isn’t for every horror lover’s taste, and it won’t please all fans of Lovecraft. For this fan of all things eldritch, Stanley’s film is a horrific little treat filled with spacey neon pleasures and proper existential terror.