Imagine waking up to discover almost everyone on Earth was gone. The Earth has entered an eternal winter, and rabid slendergorgons (slenderman/demogorgon hybrids) stalk you whenever you venture outside. In your now dead friend’s apartment, she has left you a letter and a mixtape labeled: THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD.

dreamlike indie-pop elevates the film’s moodiness

And that, my friends, is the hook for writer/director A.T. White’s feature length debut, Starfish. You might imagine that a film featuring an apocalypse-averting mixtape to have a killer soundtrack, and you would be correct. Upbeat, dreamlike indie-pop elevates the film’s moodiness while helping to advance the story.

But Starfish offers a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, with some of the best looking cinematography this year, thanks to Alberto Bañares (Eva, 11-11-11). Stunning visuals and creative camera-work combine to create a dream-like world that paints an accurate portrayal of loss, grief, and guilt. White combines jaw-dropping visuals with atmospheric music to create a truly magnificent piece of art.

White takes a gamble here, placing his entire film squarely on the shoulders of Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, Halloween). Thankfully, Gardner proved to be more than up to the task, as the sole focus–and sole on-screen character–for almost the entire movie. Starfish does utilize other actors and characters, but we see only glimpses while Gardner, along with her Hold The Dark coat, serves as the face of the film.

truly amazing creature design that rivals anything in the Cloverfield universe

Unfortunately, Starfish ultimately fails to hit squarely on all cylinders. While White is clearly a gifted visual artist, the story and pacing drag down the overall experience. Granted, White’s message is clear. Grief and depression makes us all, to some extent, want to ignore the world outside. Sometimes, we want to disregard our responsibilities, to wall up, and to do nothing.

Normally, when nothing happens for 25 minutes, the film is setting up characters or exposition that will pay off later. But Starfish is sparse on exposition, so all that’s being set is a mood. To its credit, the depiction of grief and loss is accurate. Unfortunately, what’s accurate and meaningful doesn’t necessarily translate into an entertaining movie-watching experience.

Granted, your mileage may vary. Starfish tells a very open ended story, up for interpretation. It could accurately be called a fever dream without the fever. Characters teleport between scenes, not by the movie-magic of editing, but literal in-movie magic. Viewers will question the reality of the images unfolding before them. At one point, the movie plunges our protagonist into an amazing animated music video sequence, only to abruptly pull the plug.

combines jaw-dropping visuals with atmospheric music to create a truly magnificent piece of art

Personally, Starfish fell well short of the minimum concreteness to become invested in the story. Viewers who prefer a straightforward narrative will be positively exasperated. But the film does reward patient horror fans with glimpses of truly amazing creature design that rivals anything in the Cloverfield universe, and a few solidly executed scares. It’s just a pity that the story didn’t match the brilliance of the artistry on display. Either way, AT White is a director to keep an eye on.