Nicholas, c’est moi

Watching Color Out of Space for New Scientist, 12 February 2020

Nicholas Cage’s efforts to clear his debts after 2012’s catastrophic run-in with the IRS continue with yet another relatively low-budget movie, Color Out of Space, a film no-one expects much of. (It’s in US cinemas now; by the time it reaches UK screens, on 28 February, it will already be available on Blu-Ray.)

Have you ever watched a bad film and found yourself dreaming about it months afterwards? Color Out of Space is one of those.

To begin: in March 1927 the author H. P Lovecraft wrote what would become his personal favourite story. In “The Color Out of Space”, a meteor crashes into a farmer’s field in the Massachusetts hills. The farmer’s crops grow huge, but prove inedible. His livestock go mad. So, in the end, does the farmer, haunted by a colour given off by a visiting presence in the land: a glow that belongs on no ordinary spectrum.

This is Lovecraft’s riff on a favourite theme of fin-de-siecle science fiction: the existence of new rays, and with them, new ways of seeing. The 1890s and 1900s were, after all, radiant years. Victor Schumann discovered ultraviolet radiation in 1893. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896. J. J. Thomson discovered that cathode rays were streams of electrons in 1897. Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-rays in 1903 — only they turned out not to exist: an artefact of observational error and wishful thinking.

And this is pretty much what the local media assume has happened when Nathan Gardner, the not-very-effective head of a household that is downsizing after unspecified health problems and financial setbacks, describes the malevolent light he catches spilling at odd moments from his well. The man’s a drunk, is what people assume. A fantasist. An eccentric.

The film is yet another attempt to fuse American Gothic to a contemporary setting. Director Richard Stanley (who brough us 1990’s Hardware, another valuable bad movie) has written a script that, far from smoothing out the discrepancies between modern and pre-modern proprieties, manners, and ways of speaking, leaves them jangling against each other in a way that makes you wonder What On Earth Is Going On.

And what is going on, most of the time, is Nicholas Cage as Gardner. Has anyone before or since conveyed so raucously and yet so well the misery, the frustration, the rage, the self-hatred of weak men? Every time he gets into a fist-fight with a car interior I think to myself, Ah, Nicholas, c’est moi.

Even better, Cage’s on-screen wife here is Joely Richardson, an actress who packs a lifetime’s disappointments into a request to pass the sugar.

Alien life is not like earth life and to confront it is to invite madness, is the general idea. But with tremendous support from on-screen children Madeleine Arthur and Brendan Meyer, Cage and Richardson turn what might have been a series of uninteresting personal descents into a family tragedy of Jacobean proportions. If ever hell were other people, then at its deepest point you would find the Gardner family, sniping at each other across the dinner table.

Color Out of Space mashes up psychological drama, horror, and alien invasion. It’s not a film you admire. It’s a film you get into internal arguments with, as you try and sort all the bits out. In short, it does exactly what it set out to do. It sticks.

The meaning of aliens

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Interviewing Michael Madsen, the film-maker behind The Visit: An Alien Encounter, for New Scientist.

Who is looking into what will happen when aliens land?
An extraordinary number of people have considered this seriously: staff at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, legal sources, NASA personnel, space scientists, former military representatives, and experts in space communications and engineering.

In your new film The Visit: An Alien Encounter, I was most struck by the to-camera contributions of Paul Beaver and Vickie Sheriff, former Ministry of Defence personnel in London.
To be frank, I found it strangely reassuring to find such highly professional people in charge of the political machinery. Politicians may come and go, but civil servants are around forever.

They seemed to have a very clear idea of what would happen if we were visited by aliens and how to handle them. How did that make you feel?
The most frightening aspect for me was Beaver’s sense of how public panic would cause society to break down. I thought panic leading to Armageddon was just a Hollywood cliché, but the MoD officials I spoke to had seen this process under way during the Bosnian conflicts of the mid-1990s. Their assumption – that society tips into anarchy very quickly – was deadly serious and sincere. Beaver and Sheriff told me, more or less, that the varnish of society is very thin: fear cuts through it quickly.

So was Sheriff more worried by people than by extraterrestrials?
She knows how to balance risks. If such advanced beings meant us harm, they would have harmed us by now. She’s much more worried that we would harm peaceable aliens by making mistakes.

One of your interviewees, Jacques Arnould, a French theologian, said that when we’re confronted with something alien we need to treat it like a human. Do you agree?
I think he was getting at something deeper. Society’s varnish is our willingness to treat each other as beings like ourselves. If you want to communicate with aliens, you have to invest them with human characteristics, because where else do you even begin? The same applies to how you treat other people.

Why can’t we be objective?
That’s the promise scientific thinking has been holding out to us since the Renaissance: that the world can be understood, and that we can command the world through our understanding of it. In this, our present way of thinking is perhaps just as dogmatic as religious thinking in the Middle Ages, which only permitted certain ways of perceiving and thinking about reality. Meeting a true alien would challenge our assumptions. Before us would be a dynamic agency utterly unknown to us.

Why do aliens so disturb our reality?
Because there’s this gulf between a scientific understanding of life and the way we experience it. In the film I asked Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist with the NASA Ames Research Center, if life was blind to everything beyond its own survival. He said yes, life just wants to live. A human being, in trying to extract amazing knowledge from the universe, is just doing what living things do. It’s investing in its future. It’s expanding.

What’s wrong with that?
Nothing. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t include the fact that we experience life through emotions, dreams and feelings. Towards the end of the film, Chris Welch, of France’s International Space University, imagines entering an alien craft. His thought experiment expresses extraordinary courage and open-mindedness. I hope we can bring such an attitude to an alien encounter if it happens for real.

And there’s hope in the fact that we conjure up aliens in the first place. We long to be seen by something other than ourselves, because then our own existence is strengthened. Alongside it is this suspicion that perhaps the alien is resting inside ourselves: that while we’re alone in the universe, we don’t truly know who we are.