Richard Matheson has a lot to answer for. To be sure, the prolific sci-fi author stands as one of the most influential genre voices of the twentieth century– I defy you to look at his CV of novels, short stories, screenplays, and television episodes and not find something that means something to you (hell, he even wrote Roger Corman’s The Raven, which we covered here not two days ago!). But it is his 1954 novel I Am Legend, about a lone man fighting deformed creatures after the apocalypse, which perhaps bears the most complicated legacy. Putting aside its pretty solid official adaptations (can you imagine another literary character who could be convincingly portrayed by Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith?), the premise, with its necessarily small cast and shabby sets, has inspired nearly as many low-budget filmmakers as The Blair Witch Project. Anyone who flits around genre film festivals has seen more than their share of Legend knockoffs, and while there are notable exceptions, many are… not great.
This familiarity is precisely what makes Starfish, the debut feature from musician/director A.T. White, so striking. On paper, Starfish sounds like a typical post-Cloverfield creature feature: a mysterious alien signal decimates Earth’s population, and a lone, photogenic young woman must fend for herself while avoiding the occasional roving mutant. But the lyricism, aestheticism, and inventiveness of White’s feature turn it into something stranger, more personal, and altogether other.
The Omega Girl in Starfish is Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), an adrift young woman mourning the death of her best friend, Grace. Shellshocked after the funeral, Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment, attempting to cling to any remnants of her departed friend’s life she can find. This proves about as fruitful as one might expect, and she winds up passing out fitfully on the couch. When she awakes, however, it’s clear that something has happened: there’s no electricity, buildings are smoking on the horizon, and there’s not a soul to be seen on the streets– except for the occasional lumbering, toothy mutant. In her attempts to figure out what’s going on, Aubrey discovers an audio cassette labelled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.” On it, Grace addresses Aubrey, telling her that she’s discovered a mysterious signal, which she’s encoded into some tuneful indie-pop and recorded onto a series of tapes hidden at all of their old stomping grounds. As Aubrey traces her steps and pops in the tapes, she discovers that their contents repel the marauding creatures– and subject her to increasingly unpredictable hallucinations.
Watching Starfish, I was surprised to learn that it is White’s first feature. From the very first scene, the look and feel of the film are remarkably assured. White knows exactly where to put the camera, and the film’s aesthetic sets it apart from its peers in the Legend-sploitation genre. What’s more, he knows what to put in front of the camera. While we never meet Grace in person, the production design of her apartment makes us feel like we know her as well as Aubrey did; every square inch of her home is filled with trinkets and artifacts that let us know exactly who she was as a person (amusingly, the fur hood Aubrey wears in the trailer isn’t the result of a run-in with a wolf– Grace was just the sort of person who would happen to own a gigantic, realistic coyote costume). Likewise, Aubrey is a character of few words, but the way she interacts with her environment tells us everything we need to know about her as a person. And the mutants, while not quite matching studio-level CGI, are very well-designed, refreshingly distinct from the generically anatomical creatures of A Quiet Place or Cloverfield, and instead embracing the satisfyingly over-the-top aesthetic of ‘90s Todd McFarlane. In all of these aspects, Starfish is a triumph of art design over budget.
This goes double for the hallucinations. It is when Aubrey pops in a cassette and lets the signal carry her away that Starfish truly goes for broke, careening from one dizzyingly psychedelic set piece to the next. Smartly, no two tapes seem to have the same effect: some simply send her into flashbacks (or, at least, magical-realist distortions of flashbacks), some cause her surroundings to levitate, and some instantly transport her to other locales or dimensions (including one jaw-droppingly meta moment which I will not spoil here). In the film’s most memorable moment, the tape suddenly renders Aubrey and her world in gorgeously colorful animation, reminiscent of the ‘80s work of Don Bluth. When Starfish lets its imagination run loose, it’s truly breathtaking.
That being said, Starfish does at times verge on being maddeningly opaque. By the time it ends, it’s clear that not quite everything is what it seems, and that Aubrey may not be the most reliable narrator, but the moments that feel like they should be revelations still remain somewhat cloudy. And while Aubrey is a refreshing change of pace from the typically grizzled post-apocalyptic survivor, there are times when you just want to shake her and tell her to stop moping and do something, anything. This is clearly a very personal story for White (the film is dedicated to a “Grace,” and all proceeds will be donated to cancer research), but it at times seems like the key aspects remain in his head. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with ambiguity in storytelling, but the film might have felt more satisfying as a whole with just a little more clarity.
Still, this should not take away from how truly impressive a piece of work this is. I have seen many, many independent genre films of comparable budgets and concepts, and few are as inventive, idiosyncratic, or well put-together as Starfish. And while its world isn’t as expansive as, say, those of Terry Gilliam, the amount of care and detail put into setting its “rules” is just as staggering (the time in which its set is pointedly left ambiguous, and while its characters read as modern, there is a distinct lack of contemporary technology). With his first feature, White has proven himself a force to be reckoned with, and I will be keenly interested in what he comes up with next– provided humanity lasts that long.
dir. A.T. White
Screens Saturday, 3/16, midnight @ Coolidge Corner Theatre – director A.T. White in person!
Debuts on VOD 5/28