MOVIE REVIEW: Color Out of Space

Rating: Unrated / Runtime: 1 hour and 51 minutes

The best independent films do more with less. When there isn’t a massive budget to fall back on for special effects, the importance of storytelling and conveyance of mood become amplified. Operating on a $12 million budget (which I’d assume a decent chunk of went to star actor Nicolas Cage), Richard Stanley has crafted a gnarly, yet intoxicatingly beautiful aesthetic in “Color Out of Space”, which fits the bizarre nature of this story perfectly. The tale comes from an H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. We follow the Gardner family, who have not too long ago traded city life for a rural family estate located near Lovecraft’s famous setting of Arkham, Massachusetts. Nathan (Cage), the father, is a wannabe gardener and farmer who raises alpacas and is trying to embrace this new country life, while his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson) is doing her best to work from home via the home’s bad internet connection while recovering from breast cancer surgery. They have three children, all with their own sort of strange qualities. LaVinia (Madeleine Arthur) we first meet in the middle of some kind of Wiccan ritual that she hopes will heal her mother and eventually lead the family back to the city. Her practice of magic and dabbling in the occult continues throughout the film and leads to some pretty horrifying decision making. Her brother Benny (Brendan Meyer) likes video games, smoking weed, and helps out around the house without too much fuss. And then there is her younger brother Jack (Julian Hilliard), who is a bit of a mama’s boy still and gives the film a vessel for some freaky child-based horror. There’s also an old hippie living out in the woods who seems to notice problems with nature before everyone else and a young biologist named Ward (Elliot Knight) who pops in and out of the story and serves as a sort of documentarian for the events that take place.

The first half or so of the film, before things get really weird, I found myself very engaged. Family drama is explored and when the mysterious meteorite crashes into their yard a good amount of time is spent on slowly revealing various sci-fi anomalies that mess with the characters’ sense of sight and sound. Of course, this is based on the dark mind of H.P. Lovecraft, so horror is part of the story’s DNA and once it comes, the situation gets nasty quickly. There is definitely some gore, but it’s far from overwhelming and contained to just a few scenes. For the most part, it’s the psychological nature of horror explored here, a staple of Lovecraftian storytelling, and a general haziness of time and space that overwhelms the family as the alien color begins to permeate the landscape and their lives. Cage is given the opportunity to get nuts in a few scenes, but unfortunately, it felt almost out of left-field, very forced, and not a natural reaction I expected from his character. Perhaps if he had gone all-out crazy and stuck to that versus oscillating back and forth between sanity and insanity it would have played better for me. It’s in the second half of the film, where the color from the meteorite is taking over, where I didn’t find myself enjoying it nearly as much. As mentioned earlier, the look of the film is mesmerizing and the score by Colin Stetson contributes strongly toward setting that important mood. I just didn’t care about the characters much at all, and I didn’t find the film to be saying anything vastly important about humanity and nature. It’s a tale of aliens or elder gods or whatever you want to think of them as showing up without any explanation as to why and ruining life for this family in a horrific way. The story is just lacking a bigger picture view that I think would have given it much-needed weight and stakes.

“Color Out of Space” is Stanley’s first feature film in over two decades, though, and it proves the filmmaker most famous for being fired from “The Island of Doctor Moreau” still has talent worth sharing with the world. The visuals alone are worth seeing this movie for and it never dips into lackluster boring territory, even if it doesn’t reach any memorable heights either. “Color Out of Space” is the kind of unique sci-fi and horror film that we deserve to see more of. Though the vision of their directors may not blow every viewer away, seeing something this different from mass-market blockbusters is always a treat.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Hereditary

HEREDITARY (2018)

2 Hours and 7 Minutes (R)

It’s the morning after I saw Hereditary and I’m still alive. I didn’t have a nightmare, and I slept just fine. I guess it’s not quite the scariest movie ever made? That being said, there is plenty of frightening imagery and a very chilly atmosphere throughout that do contribute to one heck of a tense viewing experience. This directorial debut by Ari Aster may not be a perfectly tuned gem, but it offers something fresh and terrifying in ways audiences are not used to seeing.

Hereditary is the story of a family’s struggle to overcome the tragic fate which seems destined to befall them. Annie (Toni Collette), a miniature design artist, has recently lost her mother, a woman whom with she had a fractured and contentious relationship with. She is torn between feelings of sadness over the death, and also guilt over a lack of it. In the aftermath of her mother’s absence she begins to discover spiritual secrets that hint at a very dark past, one that has greatly impacted Annie’s two children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro).

There honestly isn’t much more that can be said about the narrative without diminishing the surprises to come. What transpires is a horror tale heavily influenced by Greek tragedy. For the first two acts, it is the definition of slow-burn. The aforementioned atmosphere is cold and dark with an air of dread hanging over the family constantly. The scares come infrequently and often Aster misdirects by lingering in a scene long enough to get audience expectations up before moving on without giving the jump scare we are conditioned to receive. What is most frightening in this section is the depth and pain of the family drama at the film’s heart. It shouldn’t be shocking that a family with evil secrets in their DNA have relationship issues, and these play out deliciously with Collette leading the way. Her performance is probably the best one I’ve ever seen in a horror film by a leading lady, and that includes The Exorcist. Her ability to emote crippling grief, fear, rage, and pain is unbelievable. Luckily we spend most of our time with her because she is absolutely the film’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, this also serves as an accidental detriment, because her children simply can’t live up to the powerful work she puts in. Wolff, in particular, is asked to carry a heavy load, but simply isn’t on Collette’s level. This draws attention to the fact that there is acting happening and pulled me out of the film at times. Gabriel Byrne, playing Annie’s husband Steve, is up to task in a much smaller role, though. His quiet patience and strength as he consistently tries to hold his dysfunctional family together despite the unraveling happening before him is inspiring and resulted in a great amount of empathy for his character.

The cinematography in Hereditary is also awfully good. Annie’s miniature workshop provides the basis for quite a few interesting scenes and the camera’s focus on characters having a breakdown (which happens a lot) really creates a sense of closeness that heightens their emotional release. Likewise the score contributes greatly to the overall perilous mood, and even more so the sound editing is fantastic and a major factor in keeping the audience on the edge at all times. For movies to become classic they need something iconic that can be referenced in future generations, and much like the singing of “Time Is On My Side” in Fallen, the use of tongue clicking in Hereditary will be implanted in your memory forever.

Despite many strengths, the film does disappoint in ways. The third act is a major tonal shift that some may feel is warranted due to the build-up before, but it was jarring and unenjoyable for me. Throughout the story it also felt to me like horror tropes were being checked off of a list and when the supernatural was shown it took away from my enjoyment of the subtle horror displayed within the pulse-pounding mysterious and emotional family drama. This final act took all of that supernatural stuff and cranked it up to 11, providing the shock factor missing previously and ending with a punch that may have been unexpected but left me with the lingering question of, “Do I even care”?

VERDICT

Hereditary is no doubt an audacious debut from a new filmmaker that will likely be talked about all year long and potentially feature heavily in the end-of-year awards conversation. Toni Collette’s performance is stunning and will by itself terrify many viewers. The horror story at the heart of Hereditary, though, is not something tremendously unique. Though the method of revealing its dark secrets is fresh, the evil here is forgettable. If you’re looking for jump scares, this probably isn’t the film for you. But if you enjoyed A24’s previous release The VVitch, you’ll most likely fall in love with the first two acts of this as well. That final act is truly the separating point. Where some see instant classic and walk away shaken and unable to sleep, I was simply annoyed and left feeling that an opportunity for true greatness was just missed.

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Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.