Over the years, we’ve come to expect Nicolas Cage to get unhinged in his movies. No matter how grounded the film, we all wait for the moment when–at long last–the midnight movie staple starts shouting his brains out or going nuts. This is all to say that a Lovecraftian movie that unites Cage with a director as fascinating as Richard Stanley (who is making his return to longform filmmaking after being infamously fired on the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1996) should be prime for some iconic shenanigans.
Sadly, while we do get those moments in Color Out of Space, the movie doesn’t understand that Cage needs to be first restrained, then unleashed once the anticipation builds up. Combined with other issues, the result is a disjointed and at times painfully dull movie, despite the alpacas and the Cronenberg-esque body horror.
Based on a 1927 short story of the same name by acclaimed horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, Color Out of Space follows Nathan Gardner (Cage) as he contends with dissatisfaction with his idyllic farm life in rural New England. The farm, the alpacas, and the house where his family lives belonged to his father, who Nathan swore he’d never become. Nathan’s wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), is going through breast cancer treatment. Nathan’s kids–stoner teenage son Benny (Brendan Meyer), Wiccan teenage daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), and young Jack (Julian Hilliard)–each have their quirks and occasionally drive Nathan nuts, but they otherwise manage like any other family.
Of course, everything goes to hell once a meteorite crashes onto the Gardner farm. It unleashes a gradual wave of increasingly weird events that seem perfectly designed to drive the family to madness–if it doesn’t make the audience go mad first. First comes the neon fuchsia glow that permeates the house and a whistling sound that hammers your eardrums for the rest of the film. Then it’s the strange flowers that begin to glow, and the nearly alien praying mantis with multiple sets of eyes that flies around the house. Then the residents of the farm begin to change too, first in personality, then in grotesque and otherworldly ways that could easily give you nightmares–especially when it comes to those dang alpacas.
H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most influential horror writers of the early 20th century, with his exploration of the fear of the unknown and what is now referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos serving as inspiration for countless works of horror. While a great source of inspiration, Lovecraft has proven to be a particularly difficult writer to adapt to cinema, due to the cosmic nature of his stories, which often rely on the horror of the unknown, and the audience never fully getting the answers they want.
If there’s one thing Color Out of Space does very well, it’s making you feel like you’re a part of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story, and following the author’s style of storytelling. Stanley knows how to build anticipation and slowly reveal the sci-fi elements of the story and how the meteor changes the Gardner family and their property. The cinematography makes even the most ordinary objects and situations seem otherworldly and even terrifying–especially once the body horror comes into play and the film becomes outright grotesque. Unfortunately, Stanley reaches too far, and loses sight of the scope as the editing gets too frenetic, making the already messy plot feel overwhelming.
The problem with Lovecraftian stories is that by nature, all characters are hopeless against the cosmic forces that have drawn targets on their backs. No matter what the characters do, they (as well as the audience) are simply passengers on a ship they can’t steer or escape. In Color Out of Space, this translates to a feeling of repetitiveness and stupidity, with the characters making the same illogical, insane decisions over and over. This may satisfy Lovecraft fans, but it will bore anyone hoping for characters with any type of agency.
This is a problem that falls almost completely on the script and direction. Stanley knows how to build an atmosphere, but he quickly loses the thread as the film spirals out of control. For most of the second half, the characters frequently change their behavior and act irrationally, but there are no clear rules for what is happening to the farm or how it impacts the characters. We all expect Nicolas Cage to eventually lash out, and it’s a blast to see him lose his grip with reality and go off. But his performance, while amusing, feels out of place with the rest of the film, especially since no one else in the family can match Cage’s insanity.
Color Out of Space is an attack on the senses, at times thrilling and even scary, often gloriously grotesque and laugh-out-loud funny, but also overwhelmingly dull. This is a movie where the individual pieces make for good impressions, but when seen as a whole it becomes a messy attempt at extending what should have remained a short story into a feature film that overstays its welcome. That being said, fans of Lovecraft who know what they’re getting themselves into and fans of Nic Cage’s signature brand of crazy might still find plenty to enjoy in this movie.