If one thing’s going to strike you straight off the bat with Starfish, it’s going to be that this movie is perhaps too hip for its own good. You got cassettes, rotary phones, plaid shirts, old movie theater tickets, tea, Victorian-era furniture, quirky pet jellyfish, a turtle sidekick, walkie-talkies, and even an ancient-looking telescope. Balance that against a soundtrack comprised of alternative rock and pop songs from artists I’m definitely not cool enough to have heard before, and you got yourself a movie that sets itself into the budding sub-sub-sub genre of hipster horror. This doesn’t always work for me, but Starfish is lucky that it also happens to be downright entrancing and gorgeous.
Director: Al White
Release: March 13 (Limited), May 28 (VOD)
Following the death of her best friend, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) seeks solitude by breaking into her friend’s incredibly retro-chic house and hiding there to mourn. She sleeps on the couch over New Year’s Eve, and when she wakes she finds the world has become a desolate wasteland overnight. She’s attacked by some malformed creature but escapes, and thanks to a voice on a walkie-talkie she learns that her friend was involved with conspiracy theorists who believe alien signals are responsible for every great disaster in the world. They also believe that these signals are part of a pattern that when connected can restore harmony. Aubrey finds a cassette from her dead friend that reads “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD,” and on it are instructions to find other tapes scattered throughout town, each one containing a piece of the signal, and combine them to play the full pattern and return civilization to earth.
Each mixtape has been squirreled away in a place Aubrey and her friend once frequented, and so comes the clear understanding that Aubrey’s journey is one through her own grief as well as one to save the world. This works well on the long stretches in which Aubrey walks around and just experiences this empty world, its landscapes and architecture, while being hunted by the monsters. The visual effects here are stunning. You have an alien beast skyscraper-tall, piercing the clouds as it lumbers along, strange and menacing as the Cloverfield monster. You have others as works of costuming, bald eyeless forms with rows of razor teeth, shambling like creatures from Silent Hill. There’s a section animated in striking watercolor tones with the beast drawn like a mutated dog from Resident Evil. If there’s one thing Starfish does perfectly, it’s that it always gives you something to look at.
I found myself surprised at just how mournfully White was able to capture a chair sitting on its side. I’m not usually one for horror films comprised of moody shots of interiors and buildings, but this is an exception. With bleak lighting and strong framing, every setting comes alive as its own representation of grief and loss. A woman standing alone in a world she helped destroy is a stark and powerful symbol.
Which is why we likely don’t need the script hammering that same message home as hard as it does. We understand that Aubrey waking to this desolation is a representation of her desire to bury herself in the face of her loss. We don’t need her expressing aloud that her greatest fantasy was to have everyone in the world disappear. Gardner does a great job embodying her character’s grief through her expressions and body language. We don’t need her reading morbid quotes from books to tell us that she’s sad. There’s also a whole cheating angle to story, and whenever the big bad transgression turns out to be cheating, it feels cheap and unsatisfying. I know that infidelity in real life is shitty and damaging, ruining relationships and fostering scars that people carry forever, but in movies it just seems like the lazy generic thing to stick in to add some tension. It doesn’t help that the friend also dies due to some unexplained disease, giving these key story moments in a sparse tale a sort of plug-and-play feeling.
That said, the way Aubrey confronts this infidelity is surreal, dramatic, and memorable. It has a violence and helpless tension that can’t quite be shaken, and I think I would have appreciated it more had I had to do more work to figure out exactly what that scene represented.
This isn’t to say I was left cold on the movie as a whole. These themes of mourning and forgiveness are worthy of consideration, and it’s all packaged with layers of beauty and originality. It just stumbles in a way similar to Mother!‘s religious allegories–if you make a movie that’s meant to be loose and metaphorical, then you can’t make the metaphor so obvious, or it comes off as chintzy and two-dimensional. Because of this, heavy emotional moments land as a bit cloying and sappy for me. Especially when Aubrey does collect all the mixtapes and puts them together to beam the signal out. Each one is numbered, and together the labels on the tapes spell out a message which left me rolling my maybe-too-cynical eyes. That’s just me, though, and I could see how people with a different emotional frequency might be struck by the injection of optimism this moment provides.
As a whole, the style and type of existential horror Starfish tries to build strikes me as something close to It Follows, a fellow hipster horror. They both exist in this out-of-time but retro world and use quick exposition dumps to move along a loose tale of a woman being hunted by a monster that’s more of a symbol. As where I found It Follows to be too emotionless to be very tense or horrifying, I think Starfish is a bit too emotional. It can be hard to get fully immersed in Aubrey’s journey when the script keeps dragging me out to remind me what it’s really about. I still enjoyed it more than It Follows, because the monsters look fantastic, there are moments of surreal power, and having jellyfish for pets is an objectively cool idea.