Last year, Starfish was a big hit on the genre festival circuit, especially Fantastic Fest, where a lot of very positive early reviews came out on some major film sites. Now that it’s available in wide release on streaming platforms and DVD, I was eager to get my eyeballs on a copy to see if the film lived up to the hype. Yeah. I’d say it does.
Written, directed, and produced by A.T. White in his feature film debut, Starfish is an amazing personal vision about grief and loss that takes place within a story of otherworldly monsters set on destroying all of civilization.
Before getting into a little about the plot, I have to say that above everything else, the cinematography kept me riveted. Throughout the movie we get gorgeous greens, greys, blues and whites that give the film an overwhelming sense of melancholy. Alberto Bañareshe’s cinematography is essential to establishing the dreamlike nature of the film. White and his DP Alberto Bañares have really outdone themselves here.
But what is the movie about? Good question, though I’m not totally sure myself. The plot is pretty bare bones, and is mostly a vehicle for abstraction and exploration of the unconscious. It begins with Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) attending the funeral her friend Grace (Christina Masterson). It’s at the funeral that she starts to have visions. At first, it’s just glimpses of her dead friend, but soon the floodgates open and her visions lead her to some strange places.
After the funeral, Aubrey goes to Grace’s apartment, not really sure why she’s there, just kind of wandering, looking, sleeping, and even spying on the neighbors as they have sex. Much like Grace’s pet jellyfish, Aubrey is just kind of floating, letting forces outside of her control push her in one direction or another.
This all goes on for quite a while, and soon she’s asleep on Grace’s couch. When Aubrey wakes up, she finds that the world has more or less ended overnight because of, well, we’re not quite sure just yet. But after a little investigation, and a little help from a mysterious man on the other side of a walkie-talkie, we find out that a series of signals has unleashed a portal from which a bunch of Lovecraftian monsters have come through and are wreaking all sorts of havoc.
Aubrey discovers that Grace has left her a cassette in which she details the signals that have brought these monsters into our reality. She reveals that combining seven of these signals will send the creatures back where they belong. So Grace has hidden each of these signals in songs on cassette tapes that she’s hidden around town, places that have personal meaning to Grace and Aubrey.
A pretty uncomplicated plot, yes, but like I said, this is more about the psychological exploration of grief, loss, and regret. A lot happens in flashes of memory and images that appear and and then quickly disappear. We’re never given concrete answers to any of the questions raised. And that’s okay, as long as you’re fine with movies that come up with mysteries that aren’t given any concrete solutions. I understand: some people don’t. I personally love this stuff, this mix of arthouse and genre film. The weirder, the better.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a better exploration of grief and depression in recent memory since Lars von Trier’s Depression Trilogy. Though I have to say, I’m very glad that Starfish doesn’t get as nihilistic as those films. Melancholy, yes, but also playful and strangely uplifting — qualities you certainly won’t find in von Trier’s films.
The movie’s finale is its most emotionally affecting part, the proper culmination of the themes that the film explores. But it’s also quite abstract, and doesn’t do any of the work for the viewer.
And that’s the crux of it, really. Starfish provides plenty of scares and a fair amount of gore, making it fit quite neatly into the horror genre, but its abstractions and deliberate pacing also put it into the arthouse/experimental category. So definitely go in knowing this. Still, if audiences meet the movie on its own terms, there’s a lot to be loved here. I think it’s very nearly a masterpiece, and I’m eagerly awaiting A.T. White’s next film.