A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2019

STARFISH jjj

2019, R, 99 mins.

 

Virginia Gardner as Aubrey  /  Christina Masterson as Grace  /  Eric Beecroft as Edward

Written and directed by A.T. White

STARFISH is an endlessly compelling, ambitious, and audacious cinematic cocktail: Part scavenger hunt mystery, part meditation on grief and mourning, and part avant garde post apocalyptic sci-fi, all thanklessly held together by musician turned first time feature film director A.T. White.  

Unlike so many witless and disposable works of movie science fiction that exist primarily for splashy visual effects, mayhem and action, STARFISH is a different and rarer breed of genre effort that hones in more on ideas and themes that have universal appeal.  The movie is like a grand jigsaw puzzle to deconstruct and put meaningfully back together again, and contains individual moments of haunting, dreamlike potency, which may leave audience members looking for a more traditional narrative approach scratching their heads.  But White's debut is more of a visceral experience than a dramatically engaging plot driven one, and there's simply no questioning this rookie director's supreme confidence in executing his unique vision here. 

A never been better before Virginia Gardner plays Aubrey, who in the opening stages of the film is returning home for the funeral of her friend, Grace (Christina Masterson).  Even though she's offered up warm condolences for her loss from others in attendance, Aubrey remains emotionally distant and aloof, yearning to process her feelings on her own time and terms.  Intriguingly, she decides to break into Grace's apartment later that evening and begins to take stock of everything that that was a part of this deceased woman's life.  Aubrey leisurely scans through Grace's personal belongings, which includes two pets: a turtle and, yes, a bowl of starfish.  As she rummages through Grace's most cherished heirlooms, Aubrey tries, as only she can, to come to grips with the fact that her beloved friend is no more and is not coming back, not to mention that it forces her to look at her own life and indiscretions as well. 

 

 

After spending the night, Aubrey awakens and makes a rather unnerving discovery: The small snow covered town outside of Grace's apartment is mysteriously empty and, worse yet, it appears that humanity hating creatures of unknown origin have been feasting on the townsfolk, leaving Aubrey in a state of desperate shock.  She does manage to make quick radio contact with someone else on the outside, and the enigmatic man solemnly and calmly instructs the anxiety plagued Aubrey to locate and listen to a secret mixtape left by Grace, which is a part of a larger collection of other mix tapes scattered throughout the town that all, in their own special way, contain signals that open up portals, allowing anyone that listens the ability to travel through them into various states of varied consciousness.  

It should also be noted that the mixtapes are the key to saving the world. 

There's an intoxicating interpretive aspect of STARFISH that's all about thrusting viewers into the headspace of Aubrey as she makes her extraordinary physical and cerebral journey  throughout the story, which leaves the fantastical premise that White has conjured up here feel all the more crazily novel.  The director displays great respect for the patience of his audience, taking his time to set up Aubrey as a fragile and troubled character that's on a journey of diving into her dead friend's past and her ties to these mixtapes that let people transcend normal boundaries of time and space.  It's an astoundingly ambitious concept for a feature film director's first work, and White shows an unimpeachable level of focus and persistence of vision here.  And he gets the film's most intimate details just right, like Aubrey's early exploration of Grace's dwelling and how every little personal effect she gazes at and interacts with has some level of profound meaning for her.  The quiet and unhurried nonchalance of these exploratory moments are crucial for the gut punch reveal that Aubrey later finds herself in as a potential lone survivor in what could be a worldwide apocalypse.  So many sci-i thrillers intolerantly want to plunge viewers into one massive VFX laden set piece to the next, but White's restrained approach in the film's earlier sections is refreshing in relative comparison. 

That's not to say that STARFISH doesn't have VFX and action.  Considering that it was made on what I'm assuming is a micro budget that wouldn't cover the cost of catering on a Michael Bay movie, White nevertheless makes his cheap costing debut feature look expensively pristine.  Even though STARFISH is more insular in focus and psychologically character driven, White and his wonderful cinematographer Alberto Banares fills the film with painterly and carefully chosen compositions that add tremendously to its rich and immersive atmosphere.   White also finds remarkable innovation in stretching his budget to the max with many surprisingly convincing effects shots (one revealing a horrific facial wound comes to mind), as well as a genuinely awe inspiring moment involving Aubrey gazing up a Godzilla-sized behemoth that slowly lumbers through the town.  There are a couple of fleeting shots, unfortunately, that feature smaller scaled monsters pursuing Aubrey that White somewhat frustratingly cuts away from mid chase, which may or may not have something to do with budgetary restraints.  

But STARFISH doesn't primarily exists as a technological showreel as to what White can imaginatively conjure up with limited resources.  It's more about creating a hallucinatory kaleidoscope of beguiling images that reflect Aubrey's increasingly convoluted and trippy journey into the unknown recesses of her corporal and spiritual world.  The film generates a visual style that echoes, I think, how memories and nightmares work on us by giving us fractured glimpses of objects that allow Aubrey to remember her ties to Grace or, more grisly, stomach churning visions of the apocalypse that creep up on Aubrey in her very dreams.  There are times when White perhaps gets a bit too creatively showy for his own good, like segueing into an anime inspired chase sequence that reminded me considerably an equally incongruent stylistic moment in KILL BILL.  Yet, White's supreme assuredness as a craftsman and his spunky level of showmanship kind of overrides any scrutiny of its inclusion here.  Plus, this animated sequences is quite spectacularly pulled off.  

The cinematic influences that punctuate STARFISH are readily there, but not obtrusively so.  White's style and execution has echoes of the mind bending approach of Shane Carruth's work, and his female driven sci-fi thriller blueprint that deals with the emotional center of the lead character reiterates Alex Garland's recent ANNIHILATION.  Even the scenes like the aforementioned one showcasing that gargantuan otherworldly creature pays like a homage to Gareth Edwards' equally low budget MONSTERS (White even thanks Edwards in the final end credits for inspiration).  Like good world builders, White doesn't come off as slavish to past filmmakers and their films, but manages to homogenizes his love for them to help craft his own distinctive vision here.  Noteworthy is the fact that White pulls quintuple duty here as writer, director, editor, creature designer, and for musical score, the latter of which plays like a stirringly beautiful and frightening take on Bernard Hermann's most iconic string heavy symphonies of dread. 

I haven't frankly said enough about Gardner's empowered and deeply committed performance that goes down every single emotional rabbit hole that White throws her into.  She essentially has to carry most of the film on her shoulders, acting off of essentially no one (minus a few human characters early on and a pet turtle later) in a tour de force solo performance that's the real emotional glue that keeps all the film's eccentric madness together.  A lesser actress would have capsized STARFISH's main goal of dealing with one woman's internalized personal anguish and how she learns to deal with loss on multiple fronts.  Like the mixtape hunt she finds herself on throughout the story, Aubrey has to pick up and put the pieces of her own life back together in the process of also saving the world.  Thankfully, she also has music to assist her. 

STARFISH is an undeniably inspired creative juggernaut for White, and his debut film commendably grasps for greatness throughout, sometimes achieving it, whereas sometimes falling a tad short.  The labyrinthine-like aesthetic nature of the piece is wonderful to engage in on a primal level, but sometimes feels a bit cold and distancing when it comes to emotionally connecting with it.  That, and I believe that White sort of writes himself into a corner as the plot careens towards an ending that doesn't pay off as strongly as I would I appreciated.  Yet, its the bold and unorthodox journey that STARFISH takes viewers on that matters most, and trying to make sense of Aubrey's predicament, her dead friend, and the quick onset of the apocalypse after her demise as it's tied to a series of cassette tapes kept me genuinely enthralled throughout.  And like great sci-fi thrillers, this film uses the genre to explore universal truths about the human psyche as it tiptoes into an odyssey of the vast and untapped unknown.  STARFISH is equal parts hypnotic and confounding, but it creates a memorable cinematic dreamscape worthy of being lost in.  

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