The phrase “Based On A True Story” elicits many responses. In some instances, it suggests an attempt to recreate significant events, whereas, in others, it implies not a recreation, but an interpretation of events. It’s Schindler’s List or 127 Hours. It’s The Social Network or Catch Me If You Can. It’s The Amityville Horror or The Fourth Kind. Mileage varies on their individual or cultural successes, yet there’s no denying that each film shares a distinct commonality: a foundation of real events. For his first feature film, writer/director AI White uses his own truth as the basis for Starfish, a horror thriller which presents a survivor of an alien attack as the only hope for humanity. While this story doesn’t seem remotely true, Starfish’s truth is found in the thematic elements which surround the story, as well as in the journey of its lead. As engaging as White’s slowly paced film is, it’s the thematic elements which will haunt you to the last.
Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) doesn’t know how to cope with the death of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson). Feeling apathetic to her life and listless, rather than going home, Aubrey breaks into Grace’s apartment in an attempt to feel closer to her friend. After a restless sleep, Aubrey wakes to find the world is frozen over, dark smoke billowing from the nearby forest, and horrific creatures stalking anyone who steps outside. Confused and terrified, Aubrey starts to get answers in the form of a voice from Grace’s walkie-talkie, a voice who tells her of a signal he, Grace, and their group were tracking and recording. A signal which may possess the ability to send the creatures back from where they came. All Aubrey has to do is track down all seven tapes Grace made, each containing a song which hides a portion of the signal. Will it be enough to save humanity? Having lost everything she holds dear, does Aubrey even care?
Starfish is the kind of film which defies the current “hot take” culture pervasive within virtually every facet of our lives. It’s not a film from which an audience should immediately begin to pontificate, ramble, or sermonize, but to reflect and ponder, not because the film is overly complex in its execution, but because Starfish is incredibly layered. Drawing from the relationship of his own friend he lost, White sends Aubrey on a journey which is as much physical as it is metaphysical and philosophical. Aubrey’s notion of questioning of the reality before her, a notion which she exclaims early in the film, is one which never truly goes away, especially as tinges of the Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle become more apparent within Aubrey’s character journey. However, unlike, say, Inception, whose entire identity rests on recognizing the real from the dream world, there’s no need in Starfish, no requirement, to make that distinction. Instead, whether the alien attack is real or merely psychosomatic is irrelevant to understanding and engaging with Aubrey’s journey of loss and survival.
Only someone who’s been touched so deeply by loss could instill within a piece of art so much which identifies the little things the living must process. Upon Aubrey’s arrival in Grace’s apartment, the camera makes sure to show us different pieces of the place as Aubrey wanders through. It’s not the decorations which Aubrey first notices or the photograph of the friends together, but the unwashed dishes, the indent from a head upon a pillow, and the seeming emptiness in the apartment. These each represent how life used to exist here, each remnant a reminder to Aubrey of her loss. Building off of this, White’s direction tends to favor either extreme close-ups or distance shots, continuing the notion of isolation – due to either close proximity or immense separation – whether Aubrey is in the apartment or not. She is as if an island, a part of this world yet sovereign. This directional style creates an intimacy between the audience and the story which might otherwise be lacking from a character clearly disillusioned. How better to ensure the audience remains connected to Aubrey than to keep us close, whether she’s confronted by a creature or confronting Grace’s mission. In a strange way, knowing that White went through much of this himself makes Aubrey as much an avatar as her own complete self. This is perhaps why Grace’s death isn’t the only thing Aubrey appears to be processing, something which White ensures the audience knows by weaving in moments via sight and sound to convey Aubrey’s internal conflicts. It not only adds layers of characterization, but enables Aubrey to become more than White.
As much as the film is about grief and loss, it’s also a fairly engaging alien invasion story. Though the details are a bit murky as Aubrey’s given exposition dump on top of exposition dump a few times which consist of a great deal of scientific jargon, actually understanding the science is secondary to the emotions the situations instills. With assistance from visual effects supervisor Marc Hutchings (Guardians of the Galaxy/Iron Man 3), creature design co-created from Bowen Jiang and White, as well as music from White, a persistent sense of jeopardy pervades Starfish. Much in the same way the monsters of Silent Hill are representative of the main characters psychological trauma, there begins to appear a similarity between the events happening to Aubrey and Aubrey herself. Whether this is merely philosophical drivel or an accurate connection is irrelevant as their use is consistently unsettling. They appear seemingly at random with the only warning being the screen suddenly going black. What’s truly questionable is whether the screen is going black for the audience or if Aubrey, too, experiences a blackout before they appear.
It’s a fairly safe assumption that aliens have not invaded the world, the ground is not a frozen tundra, and the fate of humanity didn’t come down to the choices of one woman. That said, it’s also fairly believable that overcoming a personal loss feels that way. Much in how Gardner’s performance beautifully conveys the cogitative dissonance of grief, of simultaneously wanting to heal, yet refusing to let go, Starfish presents the seemingly insurmountable manner, almost world-endingly way, grief takes hold. In this regard, “based on a true story” takes on a whole new meaning. One in which the audience may want to consider before instantly digesting the experience and moving on for White’s putting more than a horror thriller on display. He’s putting himself at his most raw.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.