Written and directed by AT White
Starring Virginia Gardner, Christina Masterson, and Eric Beecroft
Running time: 1 hour and 39 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
AT White is a musician who has infused his first film as a director with music, as well as composing the score himself. The music is definitely one of this Starfish’s biggest strengths and it has one of the best scores of the year. Combining sci-fi and an apocalyptic event with themes of grief and guilt, Starfish is an unusual film with a strange tone and atmosphere. It is quite reminiscent of Annihilation, in as much as that was a sci-fi film which was actually about depression, similarly this also has a seemingly fantastical backdrop whilst dealing with universal themes.
Virginia Gardner plays the protagonist Aubrey and, apart from a brief funeral scene at the start, carries the entire film pretty much single-handedly. The film starts with the funeral of Aubrey’s best friend Grace and it is clear that Aubrey has guilt surrounding this death. She goes to Grace’s apartment in a small town, where she feeds Grace’s jellyfish with dried starfish and feeds her tortoise with whatever she can find. The production design of the apartment (where almost the whole film is set) is impressive in its level of detail and is effective in creating Grace’s character in her absence. Starfish feels extremely Scandinavian – in its costume and production design, its snowy setting (which comes later) and also in its minimalist tone. Grace still has a Christmas tree up, giving a sense of Aubrey being flung out of time and space – she is in a familiar setting, but it’s not her own and she hasn’t been there for some time. Part of Aubrey’s guilt about Grace’s death is that she wasn’t there for her enough at the end and there is also the suggestion that Aubrey was involved with Grace’s partner Edward. Aubrey has dreams and flashbacks – a recurring one is that she keeps seeing Edward without a face.
When Aubrey wakes after her first night at Grace’s, something strange is going on. There has been unseasonable snow, there are fires, abandoned cars, trails of blood and everyone seems to have disappeared from the town. A voice comes to her over a walkie-talkie, it is someone who knows her name and gives her instructions on how to deal with the situation. It becomes apparent that there has been some kind of alien invasion and that Grace knew it was coming. Grace has left a quest/treasure map for Aubrey. In places that were special to the two of them, she has hidden cassette tapes which have a signal buried within the music tracks on each one. Aubrey has to solve this puzzle and piece the signals together in a certain order so that she can attempt to close the doorway to the aliens.
While Aubrey is on her mission to find the tapes around town, she wears a fur coat and a wolf head, perhaps to help ward off the creature. At one point, she falls asleep under a car and her dream is shown in a stunning animated sequence. The hypnotic visuals of Starfish combine with the sublime score to create a confusing atmosphere which make the audience feel as if they are experiencing a dream too. Back in Grace’s apartment, the passage of time is shown through the disintegration of the items around Aubrey, as she has to use the remaining ice in the freezer to wash herself and find any remaining scraps of food that she can. She has a vision that Grace is with her and talks to her, trying to reckon with her past and make amends for the wrong she has done. The film is clearly linking grief with feeling like it is the end of the world and Gardner effectively conveys Aubrey’s desperation to get something right.
Despite having now seen Starfish twice, it still poses more questions than answers. It is deliberately vague and dream-like – when you reach out your fingers to grasp at plot strands, they seem to disappear like wisps. This is the kind of film where you need to be happy to let the visuals wash over you and to be submerged in its beautiful soundscape, rather than trying to make logical sense of it all. It effectively conveys the fog-like haze that wandering around when grief-stricken can feel like, surrounded by ghosts and trying to cling on to a past that cannot be rectified or reckoned with. It also is a wish fulfillment – many people in that position would want a disembodied voice telling them what to do and would want messages from beyond the grave that give them a sense of purpose, to feel as if they can fix things.
Starfish has my second favorite score of the year, after Fast Color – coincidentally another underseen gem set in a dystopian near future. While the Fast Color score is available on Spotify, I will be surprised if we get any kind of release of the music from Starfish, which is such shame. Starfish is worth seeking out now that it is available on VOD – it is a sci-fi where the alien creatures are barely seen and barely matter. The themes of grief and guilt are much more important and infuse every frame. Gardner gives a heart-wrenching performance as someone desperately trying to make amends for her past sins, whilst knowing it is too late. An unusual little independent film which looks and sounds great.
Starfish is currently available on VOD.