"Color Out of Space" - Lovecraft Arrives in the 21st Century

By Dark Starr

Before I start this review, I'd like to say that it does contain spoilers. If you plan to see the film and are "spoiler averse," you might want to wait to read this. If, on the other hand, spoilers don't bother you (I'm in that group. I mean, if spoilers are an issue, why would we enjoy seeing a movie more than once? Obviously after the first time it's "spoiled"), then please continue down this path into Lovecraftian horror. Remember, though, you have been warned. 

"Color Out of Space" is the new film from Richard Stanley ("Hardware," "The Island of Dr. Moreau"). The two biggest names among the cast are Nicolas Cage and Tommy Chong, both of which probably bring some controversy to the table. The movie is based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story "The Colour Out of Space." 

The story centers around a meteor that crashes on a farm and starts transforming all life in the area into something alien. The concept is that there is an intelligence at the heart of all the transformation. As you might guess, since it's Lovecraft, it doesn't end well for those affected. 

The movie does a great job of staying true to the story, while also updating it. Lovecraft's story is around 12,500 words, so that means there is some definite room for expansion when creating a film around it. In order to have a wider appeal, Stanley has set the story in the present day and tried to make the family one that seems pretty normal at the start, at least in part to make the horrors more jarring. 

Since there weren't electronics at the time of Lovecraft's story, that's a new addition with the film. I think Stanley dealt with that in a very logical way that essentially renders the electronics useless. The alien presence essentially interferes with all electronics, thereby making the use of them as a way out of the mess impossible. It also really fits with the premise of the story. 

There are some definite nods to the whole Lovecraftian mythos in the movie. For instance, the hydrologist is from Miskatonic University. That, by the way, is another change from the story. In the original text the entire tale has been told to a third party who is narrating the tale. That person in the story is a surveyor, and the character has been changed into a hydrologist doing water studies for a new reservoir. As a nod to the original story, at one point one of the characters calls him a "surveyor" before being corrected. 

Another nod to the mythos comes in the form of the "Necronomicon," the legendary tome invented by Lovecraft. The daughter of the family, who practices a form of Crowleyan Wicca, owns a copy of the book. Interestingly enough, it's a Simon Edition, the kind you can pick up at any bookstore. At one point she uses the book to do some kind of dark art to try to protect her family and herself. Apparently Stanley put that scene into the movie to show that using man-made religion against Lovecraftian cosmic horror is useless. As such, it's an interesting addition to the original text. By the way,  Lovecraft's story does mention witches, but more in a historical perspective. 

Tommy Chong's character is an addition to the original concept. In some ways, the character is Chong. In fact, in the "behind the scenes" thing on the disc, they actually say that. The guy is a definite old hippie stoner. He was an electronics genius who "dropped out" and lives in a shack on the property as a squatter. The family knows about him and gets along with him. His character is actually a great addition, bringing both some needed comedic relief, but also interesting insights into what is happening. 

The acting in the film is generally very good. There are two exceptions, and one is conditionally an exception. Q'orianka Kilcher plays the mayor of the town. Her performance is very wooden and really stands out as the one pure miss in terms of acting. Fortunately, her character is only in a handful of scenes as it is a minor role. 

Nicolas Cage is the conditional one. I know a lot of people hate him as an actor. I'm not one of those people. I'll admit I haven't seen a lot of his movies, but I've liked him in the things I've seen him in (yes, even the two "Ghost Rider" films). Here, I think he does really well for the majority of the film. There are some parts, though, where he "channels"  his father (who had owned the property before). The first time he does it in a mocking way. As the transformation begins, though, he starts to actually take on that personality at different times. Those bits don't work so well for me. They remind me of Crispin Glover and George McFly when he was trying to come across as tough. I've only watched the movie once so far. I might begin to appreciate it more in repeat viewings. 

The movie starts rather slowly and a bit dull. Mind you, I think the purpose of that is to establish a sense of normalcy while also introducing the characters in a "life" setting so that when they become threatened you feel more attached to them. It helps to create a contrast so that the craziness that comes is more jarring. I understand it, but at least first time around, it's very slow to get through it. (Used to be standard practice in the days before video game graphics took over most movie-making...Old-timer Mality)

Once it kicks in I'm reminded in some ways of the Stuart Gordon Lovecraftian films. Those movies had a really fast-paced, over-the-top craziness to them This one gets into that kind of zone, as well. Mind you, there is almost a tongue-in-cheek feel to some of the Gordon stuff. This feels deadly serious. 

Another reference in terms of style is to John Carpenter's "The Thing." The monster effects often make me think of that. Then again, that movie was so ground-breaking, that it sort of set the tone for that kind of work. Gordon's "From Beyond" is worth a mention as a reference point in terms of the monster work, too. 

There is a real dichotomy to the film. One the one hand, it is beautiful. In fact, that's part of the concept. In both the original story and this film, characters caught up in it describe it literally as "beautiful.' They did a great job of capturing that aspect. Additionally, the color in the story is said to be like no natural color, indescribable. Well, when you do a visualization, there has to be a real color. They manage to pull that off using a color that seems to shift at times from pink to purple, meaning you can't really pin it down or describe it. It's not a perfect way to handle an aspect of the story that is seemingly unfilmable, but it is elegant and works. 

The other side of the coin is that this movie gets absolutely out of control and terrifying. I have only watched it once because the first time around was such an intense experience that I needed some time before I do it again. If experience is any indicator, it will be less intense the next time I watch it, but this is the kind of thing requires some time between viewings for me at the moment. 

They make great use of both practical and digital effects. Some of the digital effects are obvious, but still effective. An example of that would be the altered insects that are both beautiful and believable, but at the same alien to the point of seeming almost magical. Another is example is much subtler. There are scenes where the colors just seem to jump off of the screen. I remember wondering how they captured those brilliant colors. The fact is, they were created by digital augmentation. It's brilliant and beautiful. 

The final word is that this is a great film, but not a perfect one. It is arguably the most successful Lovecraft film to date in terms of capturing the mood and general story of the original tale. If you are someone who is tied to specific details of a story versus the concept, then you might not like it. For me, the story remains the important part of it with the details just serving the purpose of delivering that story. Stanley has said that this is the first of a trilogy of connected Lovecraftian stories he plans to do. "Dunwich Horror" is next, and as good as this is, I can't wait to see what he does with that one.