Nicolas Cage grapples with a weird luminous alien presence in the movie Color Out of Space. It’s a story that has roots in a late-19th-century obsession with new forms of radiation, says Simon Ings
12 February 2020
By Simon Ings
Written and directed by Richard Stanley
NICOLAS CAGE’S career-warping efforts to clear his tax debts after problems with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no one expects much of. It is in US cinemas now; by the time it hits UK screens on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-ray.
But have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it long afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.
Its origins date to March 1927, when author H. P. Lovecraft wrote what would become his favourite short story. In “The Colour Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. His crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.
This is Lovecraft’s riff on a theme beloved of science fiction at the turn of the 2oth century: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 – only they turned out not to exist, an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.
“Color Out of Space mashes up horror, psychological drama, and alien invasion”
The last of those is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Cage’s character, Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is relocating to the country after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man is a drunk. A fantasist. An eccentric.
The film is yet another attempt to fuse gothic horror with a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brought us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling in a way that makes you wonder what on Earth is going on.
And what is going on, most of the time, is Cage. Has anyone ever conveyed so raucously, and yet so well, the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist fight with a car interior I think: Ah, Nicolas, c’est moi.
Even better for the film, Cage’s on-screen wife here is played by Joely Richardson, an actor who packs a lifetime’s disappointment into a request to pass the sugar.
Alien life isn’t like Earth life and to confront it is to invite madness. That’s the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children played by Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.
Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror and alien invasion. It isn’t a film you admire – it’s one you get into internal arguments over, trying to sort all the bits out. In short, it does what it sets out to do. It sticks.
Simon also recommends…
Annihilation (2018) Written and directed by Alex Garland
Body-plan genes are strangely refracted and species barriers crumble in this intelligent, ravishing take on Jeff VanderMeer’s cult novel. On Netflix.
The Martian Chronicles (1980) miniseries
Written and directed by Michael Anderson
A weird, wise Mars gets under the skin of Rock Hudson and other hapless settlers in this intermittently brilliant adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s stories. On DVD.
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