Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

Filmmaker Richard Stanley returns to the director’s chair for his first narrative feature since the kerfuffle surrounding 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” He was unceremoniously fired from that job and replaced by none-other-than John Frankenheimer. The effects of that experience lingered long, so long, in fact, many wondered whether he’d ever work on a narrative again.

Finally, over twenty years later, in “Color Out of Space,” we see some of the promise he showed us with his science fiction success, “Hardware,” back in 1990. The throw-back nature of this production, which includes inventive monster effects, probably owe a debt to his ideas for “Island.” And, of course, helping to make the wacky material work is the always watchable Cage giving us a couple of enjoyable freak-out moments.

The calm before the Cage storm.

“Color” is one of several attempts to successfully bring to the big screen H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space.” And like another cheesy adaptation, 1987’s “The Curse,” it might not be a plot that lends itself to anything beyond gruesome horror. I’ve not read the source material, so, I can’t say where it sits in the author’s canon.

Hollywood rarely gets sophisticated elements and nuance right, although director Stuart Gordon had some broad, comedic horror success in the 1980s with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond,” but had trouble transcending Lovecraft’s mythology directly with his 2001 film “Dagon.” This update is merely another gory sci-fi horror hybrid.

In the film, we meet the Gardner family, who have relocated to an isolated mountain home to raise alpacas. In one early scene, patriarch Nathan (Nicolas Cage) demonstrates how to milk one of the hairy mammals. Yes, Cage sits on a stool and describes how much pressure to apply to the animal’s utter. He even samples some of the milk right from the source. Meanwhile, his wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), manages her financial firm via a computer in an office set up in their country home’s attic.

The kids, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard), have adjusted surprisingly well to the new rustic lifestyle. Lavinia practices some witchcraft, riding around the property on a white horse. Her bare feet reveal a prominent pentagram tattoo. The teen Benny has befriended a hermit (played by Tommy Chong), who hooks him up with some choice weed. And the youngest, Jack, hangs out with his dog and tries to learn about nature. It’s an idealistic and tweaked family unit.

Tommy Chong plays a hermit, who naturally has a toke.

One subplot has Nathan and Theresa trying to recouple after Theresa has been through a bought with cancer. And another b-story has a hydrologist named Ward (Elliot Knight) investigating polluted groundwater. Of course, his investigation becomes much more vital when a meteorite suddenly lands in the Gardner’s front yard.

It’s not just the water that is affected by the mysterious rock crash-landing from outer space. The people, animals, and plant-life begin to mutate. And before anyone knows what’s going on, everything is wildly out of control. That means we get some of the crazy Cage that’s become a familiar meme—bulging eyes, veins popping, crazed shrieking, wild movements.

Stanley’s direction is reliable, but the script is awkward and dated. Merely inserting smartphones and computers into a story written some ninety years ago does nothing to help connect it with the modern viewer. The stilted family dynamic is unconvincing. In one sequence, Nathan makes an unappetizing dinner, and the banal dialogue is flat as a pancake. Nathan and Theresa engage in some bizarre conversations about their relationship. And Benny and Lavinia are way too chill as awful things start happening.

But the mutated creatures are sufficiently creepy and remind viewers of the movies of the 1980s. I suspect that practical effects were employed because the monsters look very tangible. In one scene, two characters are bonded together in a grotesque manner reminiscent of something from Larry Cohen’s “The Stuff” or David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”

Unfortunately, the heavy dramatic elements don’t let us enjoy the campy quality of the visuals. It’s all a bit too self-important, especially during the film’s voice-over epilogue. Maybe there’s an environmentalist message at work, but I found myself drifting too much to think deeply about it.

Ultimately, “Color Out of Space” is worth seeing for director Richard Stanley’s return, spirited use of practical monster effects, and another wild Cage performance.

****

A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com