While superficial and splashy compared to the grippingly bleak H.P. Lovecraft short story it’s based on, “Color Out of Space,” directed by Richard Stanley and starring a bonkers-mode Nicolas Cage, winningly splices art-house craft and earnestness with B-movie flash and fun.
Stanley, whose credits include the 1990s genre pictures “Hardware” and “Dust Devil,” has created a generally faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s 1927 horror tale (previous incarnations include Daniel Haller’s “Die, Monster Die!”), which he and cowriter Scarlett Amaris have reset in current times. Tonally, Stanley’s version differs from Lovecraft’s grimness. The movie, opening Friday at the Embarcadero and Alamo Drafthouse, contains psychedelic visuals and a darkly comic vibe, and Lovecraft’s farming folk, while still facing doom, now have entertainingly screwy qualities.
The protagonists, the Gardners, are a farming family living in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. Nathan (Nicolas Cage), the dad, is a family man whose questionable farming abilities the film comically depicts with a barnful of expensive alpacas he calls the “animal of the future.”
Rounding out the clan are Nathan’s wife, Theresa (Joely Richardson), a breast-cancer survivor who works, via Internet, in the finance world; weed-smoking oldest son Benny (Brendan Meyer); Wicca-practicing teen Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur); and Jack (Julian Hilliard), a boy of about 8.
The horror begins with an otherworldly flash of pink light and the crash of a glowing rock onto the family’s land. Ward (Elliot Knight), the water-surveying scientist who provides the film’s bookend narration (taken from Lovecraft’s text), identifies the object as a meteorite.
The meteorite emits a malignant force. In the form of a purplish-pink color, it swirls in the air and infects the area’s water and organic life.
Unnaturally colored flowers and mushrooms spring from the soil. Nathan’s tomatoes look juicy but taste awful. Animals, including the family dog and the alpacas, mutate. Communication devices malfunction.
The Gardners, meanwhile, experience nightmarish physical changes and lose their minds.
Jack, transfixed, talks to a “man in the well.” Theresa, chopping vegetables, goes into a daze and cuts off the ends of two fingers. Things steadily worsen, with everyone affected. Nathan turns maniacal, locking family members in the attic.
The situation leads to an effects-heavy pink avalanche of a climax.
The film isn’t grade-A horror in the sense of disturbing you deep in your comfort zones. Stanley’s visual dazzle and off-kilter characters make only a surface impression.
Stanley introduces potentially stimulating subjects, like climate change, but doesn’t integrate them into the picture compellingly. Bits of quirkiness, like a strangely behaving mayor and a cat named G-spot, sink too often.
Yet on the whole, Stanley’s psychedelic doomfest makes for enjoyably crazed genre fare. It also succeeds as unconventional art-house entertainment, something increasingly rare.
Stanley immerses viewers in the family’s hell, and, except for the ending, keeps the horror coming piece by creepy piece — a scaly arm; a rainbow-colored, kaleidoscopic-eyed mantis; an incinerated alpaca — rather than assaulting and overwhelming.
Cage, while capable of giving a more three-dimensional and emotionally satisfying performance, is effective in fan-popular unhinged form. Going from agreeably loopy to wild and alarming as his degenerating character rabidly tries to protect his family, he’s captivating.
Also typecast but convincing is Tommy Chong, playing a wise old hippie named Ezra.
Color Out of Space
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Madeleine Arthur, Joely Richardson, Elliot Knight
Directed by: Richard Stanley
Written by: Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
“Citizen K,” new from prolific documentarian Alex Gibney opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, profiles Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled dissident and former oligarch who was the richest man in Russia before he accused Vladimir Putin’s government of corruption and subsequently landed in a Siberian prison. As Khodorkovsky tells his story, Gibney presents a wealth of material illustrating the insanity and absurdity of Russian politics from the 1990s onward. The film weakens toward the end, but it’s often fascinating.
Gibney, whose subjects have included Lance Armstrong, Julian Assange, Elizabeth Holmes and Eliot Spitzer, makes conventionally constructed but high-quality journalistic films about super-successful people who egregiously abuse their power or position. Khodorkovsky fits that bill. “Citizen K” entwines a portrait of him with an examination of post-Soviet Russia. An interview with Khodorkovsky, along with Gibney’s narration and taking-heads commentary, provides insights.
Khodorkovsky, who lives in London and claims to have amended his avaricious ways, recalls how he accumulated enormous wealth in the 1990s, when Russia’s transformation from communism to a free-market economy was happening faster than Boris Yeltsin’s government could create legislation to address it.
During those chaotic days of gangster capitalism, Khodorkovsky and several similarly minded businessmen exploited the public’s confusion about the value of government-issued vouchers. Cheating citizens, they acquired currency they used for privatization projects.
Khodorkovsky turned a dubious acquisition of some oil fields into a lucrative conglomerate. Workers suffered devastating consequences.
Around that time, seven wealthy businessmen controlled half of Russia’s economy.
Influencing politics as well, the oligarchs, determined to prevent communism from returning, conducted a sham campaign to keep the severely ailing Yeltsin in office. Later, they machinated to make Putin president. Once elected, Putin eliminated freedoms and turned Russia’s nascent democracy into a dictatorship.
Voters we meet don’t seem bothered by the latter. They describe Putin as the strong leader Russia needs. Putin also broke with the oligarchs, who were not pleased.
Khodorkovsky called the Putin regime corrupt and was subsequently charged with fraud and jailed in Siberia. A second trial — on a ridiculous charge of stealing his own oil — extended his sentence.
The film’s final act features Khodorkovsky’s life as an exiled dissident and Khodorkovsky’s claims of having undergone a moral transformation (an assertion Gibney seems to support). We also learn that exiled Russian dissidents have died mysteriously in London and that Russia has accused Khodorkovsky of the contract murder of a Siberia oil-town mayor. Khodorkovsky says the charge, like the others, was cooked up.
These sequences are less bracing than the gangster-capitalism and Putin material. The doc loses vim as it advances.
Khodorkovsky’s moral haziness, meanwhile, can be problematic. He may be speaking truthfully when declaring himself innocent of crimes he’s charged with, but he has a shady past and a slippery quality. While intriguing, he’s hard to get a handle on.
The film still qualifies as an entertaining, information-packed look at post-Soviet Russia, from its Wild West 1990s through 18 years of Putin. It succeeds as a cautionary doc about how close ties between politicians and tycoons can affect democracy.
It’s also relevant to our own situation. Gibney shows us a world where what’s false is deemed fact, and what’s true is called fake.
Other rabbit-hole moments include Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” at a banquet.
Starring: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Tatyana Lysova
Written and directed by: Alex Gibney
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes