Film Review: Color Out of Space

Nicolas Cage is ideal choice for Lovecraft story adaptation

Film poster for Color Out of Space
Film poster for Color Out of Space
Film poster for Color Out of Space

There is an episode of the TV comedy Community where Greendale College’s resident drama professor tells his class it is impossible to say if Nicolas Cage is a good actor or a bad one. Film student Abed, who has obsessive-compulsive tendencies, nearly breaks his brain seeking a definitive answer to the impossible conundrum. “This question has no answer,” the professor warns him.

Oscar-winner Cage, of course, has delivered powerful performances in many excellent films. He has also delivered bizarre antics in some famously bad ones. He can deliver an over-the-top interpretation of a role that seems more like a surreal parody of acting. He is not, typically, a naturalistic or realistic actor. I love him in Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Raising Arizona and David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. The surreal, black comedy universes of Lynch or the Cohen brothers are perfect for Cage’s style of performance.

Cage may be the ideal choice to star in a film adaptation of horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Color Out of Space. Indeed, Cage and Lovecraft share a key similarity: I believe it is similarly difficult to say whether the influential horror author is a good writer or a bad one.

Lovecraft is a writer of enormous creativity and originality, with some glaring shortcomings. Rereading Lovecraft recently around the same time I was grading student papers, I had the feeling that if I were to grade his writing on a rubric, he would get a lot of 5s as well as a lot of 1s: top marks for some things, failing on others.

Consider the question of Lovecraft’s originality. The fictional universe he depicts in his works is one of the most singular creations ever put to paper, populated with bizarre, ancient, inscrutable, alien beings of terrible power who probably created life on Earth as a jest. But writing in the 1920s and 1930s, his writing style is awkwardly derivative of earlier Victorian Gothic writers, especially Poe. Lovecraft seems to double down on some of the worst excesses of Victorian literature. His overwrought writing style arguably veers into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory. The same thing may be said about some of Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top performances.

One of the challenges reading Lovecraft, is that his writing is profoundly racist and xenophobic in a way that cannot easily be excused or ignored. Ideas of racial hierarchy and racial degeneration are central to the horror he imagines. Typically, a Lovecraft story involves white settlers or explorers undergoing a devolution or degeneration through contact with alien forces and the racialized peoples aligned with those forces. Lovecraft depicts indigenous peoples, immigrants, and other people of color as living in a state of savage degeneration that threatens to infect the white protagonists.

Reading Lovecraft, I feel a second level of horror — let’s call it meta-horror — at how closely his ideas of racial degeneration through contact with the other match the white supremacist ideologies underpinning National Socialism and the Ku Klux Klan.

Director Richard Stanley adroitly navigates the minefield of Lovecraft’s racism in his Color Out of Space film adaptation. Setting the action in the present day, Stanley makes the scientist-narrator role of Ward Phillips (played by British actor Elliot Knight) a character of apparently multiracial background. Phillips is the only major character largely unaffected by the degeneration wrought by the strangely colored meteorite that falls from the sky. The alteration offers subtle commentary on and criticism of Lovecraft’s racist aesthetics.

Lovecraft did not really do characterization. His stories read like formal reports of events. The only character that typically gets much development is the narrator himself, upon whom we see the full weight of some weird horror slowly dawning. Color Out of Space the film wisely fleshes out the characters of the Gardner family, who will be the primary victims of the eponymous colour.

Madeline Arthur as Lavinia Gardner in Color Out of Space

In the film, as in the story, a strangely-colored meteorite falls from the sky onto the Gardner family farm, sinks into the ground, and gets into the local water supply. Then weird shit starts to happen.

Color Out of Space is a fitting adaption of Lovecraft’s original short story: faithful in the essential details, while making necessary additions and updates to fit the film format and bring the story into the 21st century. Cage is weird, and Lovecraft is weird, and the film is bonkers. But it all sort of works.

There is something uneven and off-kilter about Cage’s performance. When Cage’s character Nathan Gardner assumes the voice of his hyper-critical father, it comes off as laughably bad. But everything else he does is pretty great. Sane Nathan is a straightforward, unassuming performance. Insane Nathan, after his mind is affected by the meteorite, is the right kind of crazy performance we love from Cage.

Richard Stanley and his team have done an especially good job with the visual effects and look of the film. Consider that Lovecraft frequently describes things as “indescribable.” In the original short story, Lovecraft writes that the color that falls from the sky and infects the Gardner farm is “almost impossible to describe.” We are also left to guess many of the specifics of what has happened to the Gardner family.

In the visual medium of film, we need to see some of these things on the screen. We need to see the colour here, and it is well done. A sort of pinkish purple, as it is approximately described in the story at one point, with a sinister connotation. It has a vaguely neon, radioactive, toxic look to it. It both attracts and repels. It is used judiciously in the film, not overused.

Stanley needs to flesh out the horror of what has happened to the Gardner family beyond what Lovecraft describes. In the story, terrible events have occurred, but we get layers of narrative like a game of broken telephone, levels of narrators who cannot or will not describe the full horror of what they saw and only darkly hint. Lovecraft uses this technique to great effect in his writing. Film horror is also a matter of concealing as well as revealing, but the visual medium and present-day audiences require more explicitness. Stanley does a fantastic job on this point, both conceptually and visually. The results are quite horrifying.

My biggest criticism of the film is that the pacing seems slightly off. A story that takes place over months and years in Lovecraft’s original, takes mere days here it seems. This detail is explicitly addressed in the film, with characters telling others that the colour appears to be affecting how time operates. However, I feel that as a film in and of itself, the pacing could be better in terms of building of suspense and progressing the plot. The weirdness may ramp up too quickly after the colour hits.

Richard Stanley has created nearly as strong a film adaptation as we could hope for from Lovecraft’s strange story. There is are moments of great humour which come as welcome relief from the effective and disturbing horror. The supporting cast gives uniformly strong performances. One familiar horror movie technique is extremely well done here, but to go into much more detail would be a spoiler. The pairing of Cage and Lovecraft makes for a suitably creepy, unsettling, and uncanny film.

Lauren Stephen teaches writing at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario.

Writer, editor, college professor, software developer, stand-up comic, based in Hamilton, Canada.

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