Written & Directed by A.T. White
One of the best ways to bring people into a fantastical story, such as in the science fiction or horror genre, is to ground that narrative in human conflict and emotions. We can’t relate to being in the middle of a world-ending cosmic event or being chased by otherworldly monsters. However, the audience can connect to feelings like loss, guilt, the list goes on. Starfish, despite being a sometimes surreal movie, keeps its feet firmly planted in the realm of the human psyche. Now, if it succeeds in conveying a compelling narrative to the audience is another question entirely.
Aubrey has returned home to attend her best friend’s funeral. At some point in the recent past, Aubrey grew distant from Grace, life getting in the way. After the service, Aubrey spends time in Grace’s apartment, over the cafe she owned in their small mountain town. She picks through the remnants of her friend’s old life and settles in for the night. Something happens while she slumbers, and when Aubrey wakes, she finds people missing strange creatures roaming the snowy streets. A walkie talkie in Grace’s apartment comes to life and Aubrey begins talking with a man who explains that the signal was used to create a rift. Grace knew about the signal and has hidden clues across the town to help Aubrey solve this horrific problem.
I have to say I enjoyed this film better before it opened the doors to its horror apocalypse twist. The cinematography is exquisite and silently following Aubrey through the apartment, building the character of Grace in our heads through the artifacts of her life was intriguing. Additionally, getting to know Aubrey through the flashes of memories and regrets she has was pulling me into the picture. Actress Virginia Gardner does a great job playing someone uncomfortable with feeling their full emotions, restraining herself to the point of exhaustion.
Starfish starts to fall apart when the fantastic elements kick in. It’s not that we lose our handle on the emotional aspects it’s that the exact details of what is happening feel muddled and unclear. It would make sense that Aubrey is not aware of the full scope of what is happening outside of the apartment, but even when she does encounter creatures or phenomenon, there isn’t a clear set of rules that we can infer. The film feels like it will become a survival story that contextualizes Aubrey’s grief. But then it becomes a little more light-hearted scavenger hunt as our protagonist must find seven cassette tapes that each hold a piece of a powerful signal that may drive the evil back. Then a moment happens where things get annoyingly meta, but that thankfully doesn’t last too long.
One element that is consistent throughout is music; the signal is basically a sizeable spread-out mixtape. In that way, the film is like a mixtape of moods and styles. There’s a gorgeous animated sequence when one of the tapes is played. The voice on the walkie talks about there being other dimensions and the music seems to help Aubrey move between these worlds. I wish this idea had been developed out a little better so that the film felt more consistent, and the ending delivered more of an emotional punch.