A.T. White’s debut, Starfish, is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos. However, though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging performance and often stunning visuals.
Much of the story is delivered in vague tidbits that have to be pieced together like a detective would link clues, but Starfish at least establishes a concrete premise: Aubrey (an ethereal Virginia Gardner) is saddened by the death of her best friend, Grace, and due to some lingering feelings of guilt, decides to break into the deceased’s apartment and spend the night. The playing of a curious mixtape results in openings to another dimension, and by the time morning arrives, the snowy mountain town is nearly empty, save for some four-legged monsters that roam the streets — and a mysterious voice on the other end of a multi-channel radio. This stranger tells Aubrey that the portals can only be closed by tracking down Grace’s remaining mixtapes, all of which contain portions of a world-saving signal. And so, Aubrey sets out to track down the tapes, all while revisiting important moments and emotional states that contributed to her current melancholy.
That explanation is really the best I can do; those who get wrapped up in trying to figure out what exactly is happening in the world of Starfish might end up a bit disappointed. Instead, this one is definitely about going with the flow, about letting its rhythms and sometimes trippy images wash over you to gain a better understanding of the character more than the situation. There are moments that play like horror (the desolate streets create eerie cat-and-mouse chases), others that are sweet in their mournfulness (a tender conversation occurring in Aubrey’s mind — or is it? — deals with a range of feelings upon losing someone close), and still others that are off on another planet of meta-weirdness (a swirling animated sequence and a creepy moment where Aubrey visits the actual set of the movie depicting her are bizarrely impactful).
What does it all mean? Good sci-fi rarely answers this question to any satisfaction, instead letting audiences make their own interpretation. Alex Garland’s recent Annihilation certainly took this tack, although that film’s ambiguity looks outright transparent compared to what’s happening here. Starfish maintains a more aloof attitude than most when it comes to exposition, opting instead to go for long, dialogue-less stretches where Aubrey trudges through the desolate city or stares off into space while one of the idiosyncratic soundtrack selections attempts to illuminate what she is thinking.
Still, Starfish manages to avoid being overly standoffish as it jumps through time and memory in large part due to director A.T. White’s often-hypnotic imagery. His wide compositions capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings as Aubrey nestles in the warm glow of a happier past. His use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest.
Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand. Instances of grief, fear, confusion, guilt, remorse, and determination are rarely telegraphed, inviting audiences to study her more closely. Aubrey almost seems shell-shocked by certain events in her life, and Starfish aims to see her come to terms.
It largely succeeds. Just as its impossible to know what is truly going through someone’s head, your guess is as good as mine as to how the story in Starfish truly plays out. What is certain, however, is that a conclusion of Aubrey’s journey does take place — if not so much in the outer world, than deep within her inner one.