Saturday, October 31, 2020

End of the World Blues

Starfish (2018)


The thing about doomsday is that it's always the end of somebody's world. "Eschatology" is a big word for a commonplace experience that comes for everyone eventually. As I write this in the dwindling months of 2020, huddled away in my house like I'm taking refuge from a zombie apocalypse during a plague year that is this generation's great calamity, I've been feeling that old millennial unease settle into my bones. The world really does feel like it's winding down, like the people I know are the last generations of humankind before pestilence and climate change wipe the world clean with fire and hurricanes and Covid-19, to say nothing of the other man-made ills that afflict the planet and the body politic. As always, the horror movies of the present moment reflect and interpret this reality, presenting apocalypses both small and personal and cosmic, with a range of flavors in between.


One such film is Starfish (2018, directed by A. T. White). It plays like an indie drama gone slumming in genre-ville, but it circles around the end of the world throughout its running time, embracing the end in terms that are personal, cosmic, and meta-cinematic by turns. It provides red meat and monsters for the horror crowd, but it's wrapped its narrative in layers of grief, regret, and redemption. It's an ambitious film for a production of such modest means, so it can be forgiven if it loses its way in the end.



The story follows Aubrey, who has come to the funeral of her best friend, Grace. Aubrey feels isolated at the wake and following a brief appearance, makes her escape. She takes refuge in Grace's apartment. She feeds the jellyfish in the aquarium. She feeds the pet turtle. She spies on the couple across the road with Grace's antique spyglass. She listens to Grace's music. She takes a shower. She masturbates. All in an attempt to process her grief. The next morning, she's attacked by some kind of monster in the abandoned streets of Grace's snowy mountain town. She barely escapes and then only because a voice on a walkie talkie left in the restaurant beneath Grace's apartment guides her to safety, deflecting the monster with a weird signal. Aubrey, it seems, is trapped in Grace's world. She shortly discovers that Grace has been working with signals, trying to piece together the cause and cure for the dimensional rift that is the source of the monsters. She has secreted the signal in mix tapes she's seeded around town. Aubrey must find them and piece them together if she's to have a chance to stop the end of the world...


Starfish (2018)

Like a lot of contemporary horror movies, Starfish is less interested in the red meat of the genre than it is in the effects genre can have on interior dramas. The barriers of genre are collapsing worldwide thanks to the realities of the movie business, and if an indie director can get his ideas across inside a genre framework, then that director has an easier chance of getting that project funded. Horror and sci fi are commercial regardless of what goes into them. Better still, the genre is the star, so a hypothetical filmmaker can cast the film as they see fit without breaking the bank on name stars. A. T. White, the director of this film, has lucked into a stellar lead actor in Virginia Gardener, who is asked to hold the screen while playing a character going through a huge interior crisis in a performance that has minimal dialogue. Last person on Earth stories always come down to the performance of their leads, and whatever problems this film has, Gardner isn't one of them. She's splendid.


Starfish (2018)

The lack of dialogue throughout most of the film forces the filmmakers to convey their story--particularly their back story--through images. It approaches this task as collage, with fragments of images suggesting story beats rather than leading the audience to conclusions about what is happening. In this, the film is less successful, because it fails to adequately convey the nature of Grace and Aubrey's relationship, though the hints are tantalizing. It's better at suggesting cosmic horrors, though these sequences are usually brief. For the horror fan, the film throws in just enough red meat in the form of its creatures and a vision of a man with a huge gory chasm instead of a face. The story of the interdimensional apocalypse is clearer than the human drama, including brief shots of a vast god-monster and portals where the world is out of joint. A touchstone for what this film is attempting is Alex Garland's Annihilation, which has a similar world out of joint, though both films were in production at the same time so there's almost no chance that it's a case of cross-polination. Having the plot of the film turn on a scavenger hunt, keeps things moving through these set pieces.


Starfish (2018)

The film gets itself into trouble with two sequences that call attention to the movie-ness of the film, perhaps in the mistaken assumption that it needs to punch up its cinematic bona fides. In one sequence, Aubrey's encounter with the monsters is animated, anime-style. In another sequence, the film turns completely meta as Aubrey encounters the filmmaking process itself. Neither of these sequences work well, but points for audacity, I guess. The film is on firmer ground when it provides a Twilight Zone-like whip of the tale at the end, hinging on a plot element that might have been criticized as a plot hole if the filmmakers chose not to address it. I mostly like this film, but I'll admit that it kept me at a distance, both with its deliberate pace and with its meta-cinematic precociousness.


Starfish (2018)

What Starfish manages in the end is the neat trick of turning the cosmic into an existential personal crucible. It lets the audience speculate as to whether Aubrey emerges out the other side, but grief is like that sometimes. Sometimes it sucks you out of the world.











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