An adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft short story that pairs Nicolas Cage and director Richard Stanley, helming his first fiction feature since being unceremoniously fired from 1996’s notorious The Island of Dr. Moreau, Color Out of Space is something like a match made in genre-cinema heaven. And while this multihued sci-fi extravaganza falls short of being an instant cult classic, it’s a trippy and grotesque vision of the real and unreal colliding in the New England wilderness, energized by memorably out-there effects and its reliably rage-y leading man.
Co-written with Scarlett Amaris, Stanley’s film (in theaters Jan. 24) retains Lovecraft’s fundamental narrative building blocks even as it shifts the tale’s setting to the present day and expands its drama. A hydrologist named Ward (Elliot Knight) arrives in the town of Arkham to survey the water, and stumbles upon the Gardner family, beginning with teen daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur). She’s a practicing Wiccan whom he finds performing a riverside ritual intended to bring about her escape from this remote locale, and the fact that she’s cute, and he knows about witchcraft, produces instant sparks between the two. Before things can develop, though, she’s riding her horse back to her manor home situated deep in the forest, whose titanic trees and dense foliage are depicted by Stanley as borderline-mythical, housing ancient secrets and malevolent mysteries.
Lavinia’s dad Nathan (Cage) spends his days caring for newly purchased alpacas that, per the principle of Chekhov’s gun, are introduced early as a means of foreshadowing future madness. Nathan is a cheery, bespectacled paterfamilias, cooking up gross cassoulet for his brood while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) earns the family’s fortune by running a financial investment business in the attic. Teen stoner Benny (Brendan Meyer) and his younger brother Jack (Julian Hilliard) round out the Gardner unit, whose warm and bickering dynamics suggest an average clan getting used to their recent relocation to this abode, which used to be Nathan’s father’s, and which Nathan never thought he’d return to—only to discover, once there, that he’s actually quite pleased about having traded the big city’s hustle and bustle for some rural peace and quiet.
With the house’s outdoor lights glowing in the evening gloom, Nathan tells Theresa—who’s had a mastectomy, and finally ready to resume being intimate with her husband—that “A dream you dream alone is just a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” Relevant words, since a few hours later, while the two are in each other’s arms, a meteor lands in their front yard, emitting a blast of color and light that shakes the ground and air. Its bizarre arrival affects the Gardners in strange ways, in particular Jack, who’s initially thrust into a trance-like state of shock by the arrival of the space rock, which glows and fumes and, according to Nathan, smells “like somebody lit a dog on fire.”
The next morning, the family is visited by the mayor (Q’orianka Kilcher), who’s spearheading a major reservoir infrastructure plan. Meanwhile, Nathan—in one of a handful of scenes designed to play off Cage’s gift for wacko weirdness—treats Ward to an alpaca-milking demonstration. No one has any answers about the meteor, now quickly turning to ash, although local squatter Ezra (Tommy Chong), living in a nearby, knickknack-decorated hut, does show Ward that his H20 has gone brackish, thus compelling the surveyor to run some tests. Water is central to Color Out of Space, as is illumination, as the meteor soon begins radiating magical colors not seen on the earthly spectrum and absorbing lightning from raging thunderstorms. It also gives birth to strange magenta plants and vines all around the Gardners’ well, which becomes a source of transfixing fascination for Jack, who begins whistling to the “man” inside it.
Stanley doesn’t make any bones about the fact that things are headed in a demented direction, encasing his action in a gauzy atmosphere of buzzing electromagnetic currents, rainbow-like mist caught in the beams of flashlights, and hazy treetops swaying in the breeze against big, luminous skies. Color Out of Space trades in elemental horror, and the distinctly Lovecraftian sense that a rift has opened between our world and parts unknown, and that such a meeting can only result in nightmares the human mind can barely comprehend. Before long, Ezra is listening to “the people under the floor, dude—the aliens,” the TV is broadcasting nothing but mesmerizing static, and the alpacas, on cue, are transforming in ways that defy the laws of nature.
Change is in the cards for everyone in Color Out of Space, and to Stanley’s credit, he balances his CGI-aided flourishes—including a climactic rapture seemingly borrowed from some old sci-fi magazine or book cover—with gooey, gruesome practical effects modeled after John Carpenter’s The Thing. Unholy rumblings, inhuman moaning, and merged-organism mutations become the order of the day, at which point the film truly taps into the idea that there are dark, distant places full of incomprehensible forces and fiends, and that encountering them invariably leads to a warping of time and space. It’s a grand portrait of normalcy twisted, tortured, and ripped apart by the great and awful things that lurk in the abyss. If Stanley doesn’t quite have the budget to always pull off the scale demanded by his material—a notion felt at a few key moments, such as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cat-like thing scurrying across the street—he evokes a requisite sense of terrified awe.
As for Cage, he’s more than happy to play it subdued and straight for the first two-thirds of Color Out of Space. His dorky-dad routine is spot-on, and helps establish a foundation of normalcy that’s key to the climax (when it must invariably be torn asunder), and yet tinged with just enough bizarreness (namely, his infatuation with alpacas) to keep things a little left of center. It’s a genial and goofy turn that, like the film itself, is destined to come off its hinges, replete with a punching-mad outburst inside a car, a bit of lunatic cruelty to Lavinia, and a descent into hallucinatory craziness that’s as wildly all over the place as the swirling colors that eventually overwhelm this secluded enclave. Evoking everyday humanity and misshapen insanity in equally compelling fashion, Cage is the ideal epicenter of this chilling freak-out, attuned as he is to the wild and wicked energy of this universe, and those beyond.