Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) is mourning the death of her best friend, Grace. Completely grief-stricken, Aubrey wants to feel close to Grace again, so she breaks into her apartment. Once there she begins to immerse herself into Grace’s world, surrounding herself with memories of her friend. She finds a telescope pointed at a neighbours window, the tank containing her pet starfish, the tortoise that has its own copy of Moby Dick, her favourite blanket… When she wakes the following morning Aubrey finds that something apocalyptic has taken place, with the world now shrouded in snow and filled with an array of monsters.
A mysterious voice on a walkie-talkie comes to her aid as she is confronted with one of these shadowy creatures, talking her through how to keep safe. The voice soon directs her back to Grace’s apartment where Aubrey soon uncovers some cassettes that Grace has left for her, talking about a mysterious signal which can seemingly alter reality. As she pieces the clues together she begins to learn more about her friend as she tries to use the mixtapes to save the world.
A.T. White’s (who wrote, directed and scored the film) delicate and profound feature-length directorial debut is an odd beast. Billed as a sci-fi/horror it probably sits more comfortably alongside more psychedelic sci-fi films like Upstream Color, Annihilation and Under the Skin than it does the more linear films of the genre such as Alien or The Thing.
While Starfish sounds grand in scale it is really a very understated affair, as much a mood piece about grief, loneliness and loss as it is an apocalyptic horror. It’s largely a single-hander, carried by Virginia Gardner in her role as Aubrey. Sure, there are some scary moments, but the real horror comes from the hollowness and regret that Aubrey feels, rather than any jump scares or gore. The treasure hunt to piece together the missing mixtapes is as much about lost memories as it is saving the world.
Starfish somehow manages to balance an effective introspective drama alongside an equally effective sci-fi narrative, also throwing an unexpected (and beautiful) anime sequence. The Lovecraftian monsters are brought to life far more successfully than many huge budget films, this makes you wonder why the big studios can’t have this kind of vision.
Given A.T. White’s background as a musician, it is no surprise that both the score and soundtrack are also really rather wonderful. From Sparklehorse, The Notwist and Grandaddy to Sigur Ros, every track is carefully picked to add to the atmosphere of melancholy and longing. I would also pay cold, hard cash for the soundtrack, which as yet does not seem to be available.
While Starfish will be far too arthouse for some folk, it really is a beautifully realised and haunting vision, with an excellent central performance by Virginia Gardner.
Starfish is out now on demand and every penny made by A.T. White is going to be donated to Cancer Research.