‘Starfish’ Review: A Sci-Fi Mystery Shrouded in Grief

A.T. White’s “Starfish” (newly available for on-demand rental) opens with that old standby, a “based on a true story” title card, which is soon revealed to be a wink: White is telling a story of an alien invasion and the end of the world. But it’s told through a personal prism, focusing not on computer-generated pyrotechnics but on Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), a young woman back in her hometown for the funeral of her best friend, Grace (Christina Masterson).

The friendship ended on bad terms, and Aubrey seems especially haunted and troubled. She finds herself drawn to Grace’s apartment for reasons she doesn’t understand; when she wakes in the morning, her town appears to have been abandoned, and something terrifying is chasing her.

“Starfish” is the story not only of Aubrey’s survival but also of her attempt to solve a mystery Grace left behind in rambling notes about “signals” buried in radio transmissions and “patterns” in tragedies and natural disasters.

The movie takes some time to get down to this particular business, which may put off less patient viewers. But these early sections — which hew closer to character study than to sci-fi or horror — are its best, getting at the moment-to-moment heartache and misery of grief. Once that intimacy is established, it perseveres; considering Aubrey’s state of mind, White’s screenplay tantalizingly hints at the possibility that this is all in her head.

If White’s wild formal experimentation and narrative cul-de-sacs result in a strange identity crisis for the film — a sense that he wasn’t entirely sure which movie he wanted to make — Gardner’s stellar work unifies it. She is a charismatic, sympathetic lead, and she has to be. Nearly every scene in the film is of her, alone.

The direction is patient, and the score (also by White) is driving and moody. “Starfish” is a snug fit into the niche occupied by films like “Primer” and “Timecrimes”: low-budget, egg-headed science-fiction, crafted by filmmakers who are keenly aware that while special effects require a small fortune, compelling ideas don’t cost a dime.


Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.

Available to rent on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.


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