Five years ago, one of the most famously troubled productions in movie history was colorfully detailed in the documentary “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau.” Its major takeaway was the cruel injustice of a director being removed from a project that had been his baby from inception. If you wondered what Stanley might’ve got up to had that experience not traumatized him out of the business (some documentaries and shorts aside) for more than a quarter-century, there’s finally an answer of sorts in “Color Out of Space.”
His first big-screen narrative feature since 1992 returns to the berserk mixes of external fantasy and personal idiosyncrasy that made pre-“Island” efforts “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” cult favorites. It’s based on a much-adapted H.P. Lovecraft story, and like most prior versions, takes considerable liberties with the original material. Entertaining but uneven, the result is a deliberately over-the-top sci-fi horror exercise that loses some focus as the action grows more psychedelically unhinged — its oscillating tone not necessarily helped by Nicolas Cage growing likewise, in one of his less inspired gonzo-style performances.
Still, there will be great interest among genre fans, ensuring wide exposure in home formats, though big-screen placements will likely be spottier. RLJE Films (which had a sleeper hit last year with “Mandy,” another trippy Cage opus) picked up U.S. theatrical rights just before the film’s premiere in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section.
It begins a bit goofily with cape-wearing, white-horse-riding teenage Wiccan Livinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) performing a riverside rite for the sake of her mother Theresa (Joely Richardson), who’s recovering from cancer. She’s interrupted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a handsome young hydrologist surveying the area for a future dam project.
After that mildly flirtatious first meet, she heads home to the inherited farm her family has recently moved to, its isolated location a fair distance from the nearest town of Arkham (Lovecraft’s preferred fictive Massachusetts setting). There, mom is working as an online commodities trader, while failed-painter dad Nathan (Cage) is trying to make a go of rural life by growing produce and raising alpacas. Adolescent son Benny (Brendan Meyer) copes with their changed circumstances herbally, while junior child Jack (Julian Hilliard) is young enough not to be bothered.
He’s very bothered later that night, however, as an earth-shaking disturbance is caused by a meteor fragment that lands in the front yard, glowing eerily. By morning, it’s cooled to ash, and a day later has vanished entirely. But other strange occurrences begin to escalate, affecting animal as well as human residents. The first to recognize that the local water might be contaminated, visitor Ward avoids imbibing any, which perhaps keeps him safe from the distorting impact on time and matter that others soon suffer. Not so lucky are the Gardners, their livestock or pets (including a particularly expressive dog named Sam, played by three canines), plus old hippie hermit Ezra (Tommy Chong), who squats in a shack nearby.
Stanley fares best in the early going, when our dread of what might be coming is managed with a nice balance of creepiness and humor. Once the alien force begins taking over in earnest, however, the film turns overloaded and incoherent by degrees, piling on too many underdeveloped factors. Lovecraft left the cause or purpose of the invading “color” (seen here largely as a pinkish light) mysterious. But the movie is very literal-minded in some aspects, notably some grotesque mutation effects, while remaining vague in others. Whatever the space entity wants, it has no obvious relevance to the somewhat annoying Lavinia’s attempts at witchery, a non-sci-fi supernatural element Stanley doesn’t integrate into the larger story at all.
Then there’s the problem of Cage, who’s given some of his best nutzoid turns quite recently (particularly in “Mandy” and “Mom and Dad”), but here seems to be indulging that penchant for eccentric excess without much regard for the surrounding movie. At a midpoint, one of Nathan’s children says, “Dad’s been acting weird,” but how can they even tell? The other characters have their own internal logic, becoming irrational or developing other signs of “contagion” in a fairly clear progression. Yet Cage hits so many arbitrarily oddball notes from the start, we’re never sure what’s meant to be going on with Nathan, and that loosens the film’s grip on its own tricky tone. While “Color” doesn’t lack wit, its top-billed star too often seems to be having a laugh when the director and his story are going for something else.
Hence “Color Out of Space” doesn’t quite gel as a whole, its narrative dissolving into CGI-heavy hallucinogenic near-chaos rather than building steadily towards a full-bore climax. Nonetheless, it always holds interest, and frequently fills the eye with impressive fantastical imagery — the most effective being not blobby lysergic wig-outs but ghostly views of the mist-enshrouded house and neighboring woods. (For funding reasons the film was shot in Portugal, which does a surprisingly fair job passing for New England.)
All tech and design contributions are accomplished, though in suspense terms the movie might actually have been better off applying greater restraint to the use of practical and digital effects. There’s also a sense of overload at times to Colin Stinson’s synth-based score, though that may be partly chalked up to the Imax-house sound system at the Toronto Film Festival press screening attended.
Lovecraft is always difficult to adapt, despite more attempts being made every single year. “Color Out of Space” swings wilder and connects less reliably than fellow enthusiast Stuart Gordon’s several Lovecraft-based features. Still, it’s disorderly fun that sports a directorial personality distinct enough to make one grateful for Stanley’s return. Here’s hoping decades don’t pass again before he sees another major project come to fruition.