To watch A.T White’s emotional sci-horror film is to be affected by it. It is haunting, funny, poignant, and for a film about the end of the world caused by(or maybe saved by) a mixed tape, it is surprisingly grounded. That is due to several things. When everyone is on the same page, magic happens. That magic became Starfish a lovely film about the horrors of grief, regret, and massive, lumbering bio-luminescent aliens taking over our world. If even one of the components of White’s genre-bender failed, the entire film would descend like a house of cards into an ambiguous mosh pit of cartoonish tropes and lofty ideas. It’s a delicate, juggling act that must be perfectly balanced. Like the best tight-rope walkers, the end result is both terrifying and exhilarating.
Aubrey returns to her home town to attend the funeral of her best friend she had not seen in years. Shortly after the funeral she retreats to her dead friend’s apartment and wakes to find the world has all but ended. As monsters begin to encroach on the dwelling, Aubrey begins a hunt for mixed tapes that when played together, may save the world. It sounds bizarre and more than a little nutty, but it works so brilliantly. The characters are so fully formed they are reasonable, even in this impossible scenario. All the knick-knacky detritus of Grace’s home paint a picture of who she was. Unicorn heads mounted on walls, jellyfish pets, telescopes used to spy on her neighbors, and turtles who share a home with a tattered copy of Moby Dick are all glimpses of a lost life. In hushed, forlorn whispers they tell Grace’s secrets as much as Aubrey’s. These two girls shared something once. Was it distance only that separated them, or something much deeper? Was Aubrey, Grace’s white whale?
The film opens with a flash-forward to Aubrey’s first encounter with the disembodied voice. It is completely dark, and no context is given, but it feels as if the scene is from the perspective of the man and women on the walkie-talkie trying to contact Aubrey. Thus begins the intense journey to self-discovery and atonement.
Virginia Gardner, who fills every lonely moment of the film with her unflinching realism, is a star. Without her “dare you to look away” performance Starfish would be boring. Loneliness is boring. A film about the loneliness of grief and world-ending events would be unbearable. It is a testament to Gardner’s bravery and White’s patience to let her face and wide-eyed stare speak more than words ever could.
The soundtrack defines sentiments as emo bands lament the mysteries of life. Life’s big questions answered to the haunting beats of bands who are channeling The Get Up Kids and Ben Folds Five. It is self-indulgent and gorgeous. As good as any breakup compilation that you know is ridiculous and yet know every word by heart, the collection of songs that make up the film are all touching and as blunt as a bat. That is a compliment. Music has power. The power to transform and transport us and White’s vision of the end of the world is overlaid with instrumental melodies and lilting crescendos that do just that. Aubrey is transported criss-cross apple sauce style to wheat fields, desert vistas, and past memory-laden beaches. We are dragged right along with her.
What is the film really about?
Like every good metaphor, the story of Starfish works on many levels. There are symbols everywhere. It could be the end of the world just as easily as a stand-in for the isolation of loss. Aubrey wears a wolf coat and hat complete with full wolf head as she traverses the newly snowy landscape of her home town. The lone wolf symbolism is reinforced by the scant few other people she interacts with. A few random people at the beginning of the apocalypse and a male voice on the other end of a walkie-talkie found in her friend’s bed are all the companionship Aubrey has. Grief and depression are isolating. So is the end of the world. It is also banal and boring. Even with the weight of her friend’s death weighing her down, Aubrey goes through the motions of life. She eats, feeds her friend’s pets, and masturbates. She tries to block out the world by sleeping with blankets, covering her head and avoids facing reality. She is being suffocated by her shame as much as the blankets she uses for comfort. Shortly after breaking into Grace’s apartment, her sweater snags on the table and figuratively and literally things begin to unravel. Later, in a trippy cartoon segment, Aubrey drowns in the sea of her own grief. It is all very philosophical stuff that never leans into reductive territory. It is content to live in the land of transgression where scavenger hunts are quests to save ourselves as much as the world.
What’s with Head Wound Harry?
Someone named Edward, who she had hoped to reconcile with is the man behind the impressive and realistic head injury. There are memories scattered throughout of the two of them on the beach, meet/cuteing, and dating. A casual indictment is also lobbed at Aubrey by Grace in a dream. He clearly was an ex-boyfriend that she cheated on and ran from when things went sour. Was he Grace’s boyfriend first? He first appears at the funeral, so he wasn’t dead, but instead of a memory, the bloodied Edward may instead be a vision of his future.
Are signals possible in sound?
This is actually rooted in science. Binary code can be synthesized down to musical notes. As of yet, we can not develop a signal that allows for teleportation, but who knows? METI, the group so dedicated to alien contact they splintered from SETI to focus solely on communication with aliens have created and aimed an extraterrestrial mathematical mixed tape at GJ 273b, the planet they believe most likely to develop life. Perhaps Starfish is just the eventuality of that folly?
Starfish symbolize intuition. More importantly, they symbolize regeneration and renewal. One of the few creatures capable of regenerating severed limbs, starfish are incredibly adaptive animals. Not only can they regrow limbs, but the severed limb can generate a new starfish. As dynamic as the behemoths are in the film, the real monsters are Aubrey’s guilt, shame, and grief. The film is more about her acceptance than that of any world-ending alien event.
Did Aubrey die at the end?
This answer depends entirely on your mindset when watching the movie. Optimists tend to view the ending as her acceptance. A form of self-forgiveness that allows her to forgive if not forget her past sins and choose to move on with the next phase of her life. The force field, reminiscent of Alex Garland’s Annihilation shimmer represents her breaking from her isolated world of grief and rejoining the world of the living. She may have put the final nail in the coffin of Earth by playing the tapes, but she did so in an act of bravery to save the world. Grace tells her in the first tape found, each part of the signal alone corrupts but put together they are something to be excited about. The second much more bleak interpretation is Aubrey really brought about the end of the world and life is over as we know it. As she breaches the barrier and black water rains down, she is succumbing to her sadness.
This is the more literal take on the film, and in an interview with Horror Podclass’ Tyler Unsell, White himself alludes to his own mindset. The original ending had Aubrey committing suicide. The much more stylized final ending leaves room for thought, which allows the viewer to take what they need from the conclusion. She may be dead, may be moving on, or she really did just destroy the world with a cassette tape circa 1983. Despite Grace’s epitaph on her tombstone, she was not “Always Right”.
Starfish is like a Cold Play concert. It’s inexplicably touching, makes no sense, and yet you know exactly what is going on. You never want it to end even though it’s weird AF. That’s my kind of movie and I can’t wait to see what White does next. Starfish is streaming everywhere now.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.