Color Out of Space is a movie that has no business being any good. It’s literally about an evil color, so, on paper, it sounds like just about the worst idea in the world. But, somehow the film actually pulls it off. It tells an intriguing story about a sympathetic family that finds themselves at the mercy of a cosmic force they can’t possibly hope to fight or even understand. And, surprisingly, the titular color itself works way better than you’d ever expect.
But, for my money, the best thing about this movie isn’t its unique villain, its likable characters, or its gripping plot. It’s something much deeper. At its core, Color Out of Space is a poignant allegory for cancer, one that I—as someone who’s lost close family members to that terrible disease—find super relatable. Color Out of Space projects my experiences with cancer onto the screen in a way that few other horror films ever have. So, let’s take a deep dive into this cinematic gem to see how it functions as an allegory for this deadly disease.
Setting the Stage
Right from the get-go, Color Out of Space subtly lets us know what it’s really about. Immediately after the opening credits, we see a teenage girl (who we soon learn is named Lavinia) standing alone in the woods performing a Wiccan ceremony to “burn any trace of cancer from the body of Theresa Gardner,” her mother. The first time you see this scene, it’s easy to write it off as just a fun little character intro, but it’s actually much more important than that. It introduces the main theme of the entire film and places the rest of the story under the shadow of Theresa’s battle with cancer.
A few scenes later, after family dinner, the parents—Theresa and Nathan—are standing outside the house enjoying the view. Nathan begins to kiss his wife, but she doesn’t seem to be in a romantic mood. Nathan tries to rouse her interest by reminding her that they haven’t had sex in six months, but she replies that she doesn’t understand why he’s still attracted to her. In response, Nathan jokes that he’s “always been a leg man,” and they talk a bit more before rekindling their romantic passions.
This scene doesn’t explicitly mention cancer, but if we read between the lines, it’s easy to see that almost the entire conversation is about the disease. Clearly, something has happened to Theresa to make her think her husband would no longer be attracted to her. Given what Lavinia says a few scenes earlier, it almost certainly involves her cancer. On top of that, Nathan’s joke that he’s a “leg man” implies that something has happened to her breasts. The most logical conclusion is that she has had a mastectomy (in fact, probably a double mastectomy) due to breast cancer.
And in case there was any doubt, Color Out of Space gives us one final clue after the titular color lands in the Gardners’ front lawn. When the police arrive to check out the scene, Nathan explains that the event happened as he and his wife were about to have sex for the first time “since the operation.” We already knew that Theresa felt unsexy due to something cancer-related that happened to her breasts. Once we know it was an operation, we know it must have been a mastectomy. The clues fit together too perfectly for it to be anything else. So, we can be confident that this is the fateful event that put Theresa and Nathan’s sex life on hold.
When we put all these clues together, it’s clear that cancer is a major theme of the movie. The opening scenes reference the disease multiple times, both explicitly and implicitly, so it’s not just a throwaway motif. Rather, it’s what the story is really about at its deepest level. So, when the titular color begins to wreak havoc on the Gardners, we should expect it to mimic cancer in some key ways.
When we examine Color Out of Space carefully, that’s exactly what we see. The movie’s cosmic villain parallels cancer in a few subtle ways, as well as a couple of very obvious ways. Let’s start with the minor similarities and then build up to the big ones. For starters, the color lands on the Gardners’ front lawn when Theresa and Nathan are about to finally have sex again. At that point, they’re only kissing and their clothes are still on, but they’re obviously headed for something more. However, the color arrives with a bang (quite literally!), interrupting them just like Theresa’s cancer interrupted their sex life six months earlier.
On top of that, the villainous color also warps time in some really strange ways. To take just one example, there’s a scene where Benny, the Gardners’ oldest son, goes to put the family’s alpacas back in their stables, and by the time he returns, hours have passed and the sun has already gone down. When Lavinia sees him again, she asks him where he’s been, and he explains that he somehow jumped forward in time. It was daytime when he went out, but in a flash it suddenly became so dark he had trouble finding the house.
Now, at first, it might be tough to see how this element of Color Out of Space can bear any resemblance to cancer. But, if you think about it more deeply, there’s actually a real parallel here. Sure, cancer doesn’t literally make time leap forward, but it can certainly make your life feel that way. For instance, my father died from the disease, and before he was diagnosed, I thought I was going to have much, much more time with him. However, cancer cruelly cut that time short, so it made us jump ahead to a day that should never have come so soon.
Last but not least, the titular color also wreaks havoc on all electronics, again paralleling cancer in a subtle but clever way. In particular, this means that the Gardners’ car won’t work, so the family can’t simply drive away from the color’s reach. Instead, they’re forced to live with their cosmic visitor and face its deadly effects, just like cancer patients and their loved ones have no choice but to live with the disease and confront it head-on.
The Major Similarity
As I said, those are just a few minor similarities between cancer and the titular villain in Color Out of Space. Now it’s time to look at the big ones. To begin with, the color causes physical mutations in its victims, and they’re often grotesque and deadly. For example, it makes some of the plants and animals around the Gardners’ house take on its own pinkish/purplish hue, and Nathan’s vegetables become inedible even though they look fine on the outside.
But, most notably, the color at one point fuses Theresa and her youngest son Jack into a misshapen, conjoined monstrosity that looks like it came straight out of the third act of Society. It’s some great body horror, and it forms the perfect cherry on top of this cinematic metaphor for cancer.
See, at its core, cancer is essentially just a bodily mutation. So, even though it’s not nearly as visible as the mutation we see in Theresa and Jack’s bizarre fusion, it’s pretty much the same kind of thing, just on a smaller scale. In fact, Lavinia even comments that her mother’s body is trying to reabsorb Jack back into itself, so the kid basically becomes a tumor in the poor woman’s body.
Theresa literally experiences a sort of cosmic cancer, and it’s no coincidence that she’s also the one who actually had cancer. She’s the one who experienced the real-life deadly mutation, so it’s fitting that she’s also the one who experiences (along with her son, of course) the film’s deadly sci-fi mutation to the fullest extent.
On top of that, the cosmic villain in Color Out of Space is a nameless, faceless, literally shapeless entity that its victims can barely see and definitely can’t understand; cancer is a lot like that too. Sure, it’s not literally amorphous, but it often feels like it is. The majority of the time, you can’t actually see the disease, and most of us don’t really know much about it. So, for its victims and their loved ones, it might as well be just as formless and as inexplicable as the film’s titular color.
And finally, there’s nothing the Gardner family can do to help Theresa and Jack or to fight the creature. They’re totally helpless against it, and that’s exactly what it feels like to watch someone close to you die from cancer. Sure, doctors can treat the disease, and they can even cure it sometimes. But, once it spreads beyond a certain point, we become helpless to stop it.
And for me, that’s the most relatable element of this entire story. As I said, I’ve lost a few close family members to cancer. Every time, the doctors started out trying to fight the disease, but there soon came a time when there was nothing more they could do. Eventually, my family and I became just like the Gardners in Color Out of Space, so when I see these characters facing an entity that completely outmatches them, I know exactly what that feels like. It hits extremely close to home and helps make Color Out of Space one of the best cancer allegories the horror genre has to offer.