It’s hard to adapt H.P. Lovecraft in a straightforward way, for at least two reasons. First, his stories largely defy visualisation, and are often about experiences that defy his characters’ capacity to describe or comprehend them. Second, his philosophy is so bound up with racism that his mythology has become conflated with a certain kind of alt-right sensibility in the present. Color Out of Space deals with both those issues, while remaining true to the inherent strangeness of Lovecraft’s work, by way of an event that literally takes place outside human visual cognition, and that, in director Richard Stanley’s hands, dismantles the white socioreproduction that Lovecraft himself believed in. That’s not to say, exactly, that Stanley uses Lovecraft against himself, but that he finds a way to evoke Lovecraft’s vision in the twenty-first century – or a way to reimagine how his arcane worlds might haunt the present.
From the outset, it’s clear that Color Out of Space is also heavily influenced by the lush, vegetative, earthbound science fiction pioneered by Alex Garland. This mode of science fiction typically refocuses attention on our own planet as a fragment of the cosmos, and in Stanley’s film revolves around a family who live in the woods outside an unnamed American city. Nathan, the patriarch, played by Nicolas Cage, is an aspiring artist-turned-farmer, and spends his days attending to his garden and a herd of llamas, while his wife, Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, works remotely in financial markets, and presumably provides most of the income that allows them to support their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Jullian Hillard). However, we first encounter the (appropriately named) Gardners from the perspective of Ward Phillips, an African-American hydrologist who visits the periphery of the property, where he comes across Lavinia performing a white magic ritual. The family soon become an emblem of this same white magic, a repository of arcane social forces that makes them peculiarly susceptible to the event that sets the story in motion.
Before we get to that point, however, Stanley spends some time establishing the Stanleys and their world, which he does primarily through their relationship to the natural environment. The recent mode of lush science fiction is one iteration of what Julia Leyda has described as a climate unconscious in contemporary cinema – a coming to terms, usually in oblique and fragmented ways, with the massive environmental shifts occurring on our planet. While the Stanleys live largely off the grid, they do own a television, which broadcasts distant missives from the coal face of climate catastrophe, including a debate about whether climate change is irreversible, that causes the image to glitch and static in traumatised empathy. Their local government is also embarking upon a new hydroelectric dam, the biggest infrastructure project in city history (Ward arrives to check the water table) even though there also appears to be widespread contamination of local reservoirs, along with an unprecedented death of aquatic life. While this clean energy is good news for the city, it’s more ambivalent for the Stanleys, whose property will apparently be effected by the alterations to the local watercourse, much as Ward intrudes upon Lavinia’s white magic ritual in the opening scene.
With this climate unconscious in place, the plot of Color Out of Space is driven by a planetary event that is never attached to one source of agency, intention or meaning. One night, the family are awoken by a meteor-like object that plunges to earth beside their house, and starts to radiate a color unlike anything visible on the human spectrum – the “color out of space,” an aesthetic limit that evokes the unimaginable climactic future that threatens to collapse us back into the alterity of the universe. Since this colour can’t be seen, Stanley evokes it through refractive, prismatic and holographic kaleidoscopes of other colours. So lurid and intense does the film’s palette become that we soon seem perpetually poised on the brink of the known spectrum, while colour itself starts to slip over into other sensory registers, as in the ineffable smell that accompanies this light as it spreads and cascades over the mise-en-scene. Almost from the moment it arrives, this colour, or light, or whatever you call it, defies language: “Shall we try to warn him?” “Warn him about what?” “They, them, it – that thing.”
Over the second act of the film, this color becomes a kind of quantum event, distorting both time and the perception of time, and leading Nathan to compare it to a black hole. More specifically, it collapses human time into larger and smaller biological patterns, rippling across the ecosystem, and making its way into the groundwater, the supposed source of a hydroelectric, climate-friendly future. For a long time, it’s mild enough to play more as an ambience than a distinct event, and mainly appears indirectly, through a new flourishing and fecundity – vividly coloured plants, overripe fruit coming in a month early, and massive egg yolks, already well on their way to becoming fully-formed chickens. For the briefest beat, the Gardners luxuriate in the short-term boons of an overheated planet – after all, the first impact of the greenhouse effect is to produce the fertility of a greenhouse. Like the yolk that’s almost an embryo, however, the gap between fertility and decay soon narrows, and it’s only a short time until fruit becomes rotten the moment it blooms, like a particularly temperamental mango or avocado. Once the agricultural benefits of the colour fade away, it starts to collapse the Gardners into more distant forms of life, less conducive to anthropomorphism, and less amenable to cultivation too, especially particularly invertebrates, with insects emergeing from the well, and jellyfish living in the bottom of the shower. Again, the water that supposedly holds the key to a climate-friendly, human-sustaining future, now becomes a repository of a more alien form of life, much of which seems directly hostile to the Gardners.
As we segue into the third act, the colour begins to to disrupt and distort human bodies, if only because it doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between them and other creatures and objects. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, the Gardners become dividual, and the light becomes a source of rhizomatic potential, fusing all life into a single visceral proliferating continuum, not unlike the “shimmer” of Annihilation. The Gardners realise that they are little more than stardust, but in a traumatic rather than a romantic way, as the film, like so many others in this climate unconscious mode, progressively undermines the most basic tenets of American social reproduction. The first of these is private property, since the light cuts against the meticulous way that Nathan regulates his animals, his crops and his land. He’s particularly obsessed with the proper procedure for cultivating alpacas, so he’s shocked when the light conflates his crop into an abject mess of limbs and organs, not quite dead but not quite alive either. Even the hydroelectric project, which in the film’s figurative scheme should be a buttress against this climate catastrophe, impinges upon Nathan’s precious portion of land.
The second mode of social reproduction decimated by the light is family itself – specifically the American ideal of the nuclear family, which is to say the white middle-class family. Time and again, climate fiction starts and ends with this most basic unit of futurology in American life, the social construct that has been promised to ensure the continuity of country and planet above all else. In Color Out of Space, the light either dissociates family bonds, or cements them too emphatically, as when it fuses Theresa and Jack into a single abject continuum, forcing Nathan to shoot them as he did the alpacas, while they whimper with a fear that is neither quite human nor animal. From the opening scenes, Cage feels like he is in a different movie, one occupied only by himself, as occurs in so much of his recent oeuvre, but in Color Out of Space that works brilliantly to capture the disconnect between the older paternal registers of hearth and home, and climate change’s existence as what Timothy Morton has described as a hyperobject; namely, an entity that defies individual action, and the very ethic of individualism itself. The effect is not unlike that of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which juxtaposes two reactions to another hyperobject – a coronavirus pandemic. Soderbergh presents us with a retired soldier and family man, played by Matt Damon, whose effort to barricade his suburban home against the virus fades into the background of the film as a more feminine and collective effort proves to be the only way to come to terms with it.
By the end, this disconnect between Cage and the film, and between Nathan’s familial futurity and the future of the planet, has almost shifted the tone into dark comedy, in a parody of the ultimate fear of a certain strand of climate unconscious – that planetary rhythms will accelerate until they overtake the futurity of the American nuclear family. While the light starts off coming from outside, it soon begins to emanate from Nathan himself, as if slasher and family annihilator had converged the very rhetoric of hearth and home as psychotic threshold, until the film ends with Nathan seeing the light from inside out, at which point we fade to white, in a cosmic fusion of all known colours. Only Ward survives, but even he realises that the hydroelectric plant is doomed to fail, and that the rising waters of the river will be irreducibly contaminated with the rising ocean levels that they are meant to forestall: “I hope the water that covers this place will be very deep – but even then, I’ll never drink it.” The closing note of Color Out of Space is thus a despair for our inability to process something that has already happened, elegy for a planetary climate crisis that we can only understand in retrospect, perhaps a long way in retrospect, since in our present it remains all but illegible.