Adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s original story, Color Out of Space is a visually arresting but weightless horror. Taking its cues heavily from 2018’s marvellous Mandy, but without realising what made that film so great, Color Out of Space combines horror clichés with a sluggish pace. Despite some interesting ideas and elements, this film disappoints more than it delights.
A meteorite smashes into the earth outside the woodland home of Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage). He and his family are unsettled by the mysterious space rock, as is Ward (Elliot Knight), a hydrologist surveying the water in the area – water that seems to be contaminated. Something stirs within the meteorite, mutating and warping people, plants, animals, and time itself…
The base story idea is terrific, inviting horror and mystery in equal parts. The issue is that that concept is played out through tired tropes, lifted visuals, and an unsatisfying ending. It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s story has been adapted. In 1965, American International Pictures tried their hand with Die, Monster, Die. As clunky as that iteration is, it scores a major point in crafting a villain with motive. Color Out of Space is not as sharp in this respect.
Color Out of Space suggests a degree of sentience to whatever this thing is within the meteorite. Both from dialogue and visuals, the film implies a malevolence to the titular Color that drives the strange happenings. The issue is that, by the film’s end, one asks “so it came all this way to do…what exactly?” Meanwhile, Die, Monster, Die presents Boris Karloff as the film’s eventual antagonist. The meteorite in that film is just that: a meteorite, and its strange powers are used to evil effect by Boris Karloff’s villain. This allows the film to still posit the idea of the otherworldly power of the meteor, but motivation and intent are attached through Karloff. In Color Out of Space, the suggestion that the occupant of the meteor is the big villain means that its being on earth comes into question – and it’s a question with no answer. Why? Why does it do what it does? And why is it ultimately so meaningless?
The film’s end sees the lone survivor of the ordeal explaining that nobody will ever truly know what happened. While it’s an interesting idea to cling to fearful ambiguity, Color Out of Space is unsatisfying; too many threads are left unanswered. Simply telling the audience that even the characters don’t understand it either doesn’t make for a compelling ending.
Horror clichés abound from tired jump scares, characters making remarkably inept decisions that endanger themselves, and of course, the old chestnut of the first contact coming from a child. These elements might not seem so egregious were it not for the flat characters who embody them. Even Nicolas Cage giving a zany performance can’t inject much charisma into the cast. It isn’t that the performances are bad, but there isn’t much that’s noteworthy. These are familiar character cut-outs, from the rebellious teenager, to the stoner, to the crazy old man who prophesises doom. It’s just tired.
The visuals are impressive, but most of them seem like re-treads of the fabulous images from 2018’s Mandy. This doesn’t negate their beauty, but it is a shame that so little seems new. Some of the creature designs on display for the animals mutated by the power of the meteor are great and gruesome. The horrible, writhing mountain of flesh that was once several alpacas is genuinely grotesque. It is the inclusion of these horrid creatures (though not a dreadfully awful CGI mutant cat) that arguably realises the horror of Lovecraft better than the digital vista that dominates the film’s climax.
This isn’t a terrible film, but it is one of wasted potential. The flat characters, unsatisfying ending, and underwhelming nature of the proceedings drag Color Out of Space down. The creature and production designs are interesting, and the visuals are fun, if a tad unoriginal. For maximum impact, combine the villain construction of AIP’s Die, Monster, Die with the grotesque monsters of Color Out of Space. That combination might just make for a more satisfying movie.