FOR THE END OF THE WORLD: PRESS PLAY.
A.T. White’s highly interior cosmic horror Starfish is a strange beast. It’s a little bit The Mist (2007), a little bit Monsters (2010), but mostly like…
…well, I don’t necessarily want to be that person who says a film is like [other film] on [drug], or that it’s like [famous director] remade [obvious cinematic influence], but…
Well, it feels a bit like Sofia Coppola did a little ketamine and made an entry in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. And that she had it soundtracked by Sigur Rós with set design by Urban Outfitters and Instagram.
NB: Sigur Rós really are on the soundtrack, alongside Sparklehorse, and Gareth Edwards (Monsters) really does get a thank you in the credits, so those reference points at least are undeniable.
After a crackle of enigmatic walkie-talkie dialogue, Starfish starts in small-town Colorado, with the camera tight on the face of Aubrey (Virgina Gardner, fresh from her role from the junior Strode in the 2018 Halloween, and Marvel’s Runaways, and carrying almost the entire film on her shoulders). She’s attending the wake of her recently deceased friend, Grace. Right from the start we can see something’s a little off – while she stares dreamily at the other mourners, the the red helix stipe on her drink draw starts to unwind and float away – and when she leaves she almost on the point of slipping into a full-blown trance before someone calls her name.
She leaves everyone behind and breaks into her friend’s apartment, above a restaurant, to cocoon herself away and grieve, tending for her friend’s starfish and jellyfish. But the next day, after a heavy snowfall, the town seems deserted. Hidden notes from her friend talk about a mysterious signal that is letting creatures invade our reality, and that she’s made recordings of the signal, encoded within her favourite music on hidden mixtapes that might be used to close the doors. Helped by a mysterious voice on a walkie talkie, Aubrey sets out to locate the mixtapes, recombine the signal, and perhaps save the world. Or is she just part of an ongoing dissociative episode? And if so, what is it she’s trying to forget?
This is clearly a massively personal film – it’s dedicated to the director’s deceased friend, also named Grace, and is soundtracked throughout by the kinds of music (and in some cases, actual tracks) they used to send each other. At least in the first half, it’s very deliberately paced, sinking us down into Aubrey’s depressed isolation. But when those John Carpenter influences start showing in the second half, and she ventures out, things get weird: sublimely alien, whilst still melancholy – rooted in grief, but increasingly hallucinatory.
I’m a massive fan of anything that bends reality, and as it progresses Starfish really plays around with it: as Audrey finds Grace’s tapes there are sudden switches to animation, shifts in aesthetic style, and even one sequence where the camera pulls back and the surroundings are… not what you would expect. Could it be the music that’s doing this to her mind, or is reality itself really starting to disintegrate? This was what really pulled me into this movie. To say any more would give too much away, but fans of the colliding realities of Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch may find a little something to put a smile on their face.
Starfish is not perfect. It’s a little too deliberately paced, at least in the first half – it takes good while for the monsters to turn up and when they do Audrey initially has a nice long lie down to forget about them, which is perhaps psychologically consistent but also dramatically inert. And the revelations and twists towards the end remained slightly too obscure for my tastes – and I’m usually a fan of ambiguity.
But it has beauty, sadness, notes of transcendence, a reality-bending playfulness, and its killer dream-pop/alt-noise soundtrack permeates the entire film. Plus it has beautiful 2.35:1 compositions and a 99 minute runtime.
Recommended, for anyone who ever wanted to fade away and radiate.
Starfish is available on VOD/Digital from 28 May, the UK, US, AUS, NZ & Canada.
It’s written, directed and composed by A.T. White, stars Virginia Gardner, and is produced by We Are Tessellate, Spellbound Entertainment and 3ROUNDBURST Productions.