The Spool / Movies
Starfish Review: Grieving Through the End of the World
Virginia Gardner plays a lonely woman on a mission to save the world in A.T. White's gripping, inscrutable essay on loss.
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Virginia Gardner plays a lonely woman on a mission to save the world – and herself – in A.T. White’s gripping, inscrutable essay on loss.


Grief can make you feel as if you’re the only person on the planet, existing in a netherspace where other people’s voices only come across as faint radio static. There’s nothing in the world but you and your pain, as you drift in and out of the hole that loss leaves behind. Aubrey, the main (and oftentimes only) character in A.T. White’s Starfish, is plunged into that special kind of hell, made more complicated by the fact that she might also be the only person who can save the world from an alien apocalypse.

If that sounds like a somewhat flippant take on a serious subject, be assured that it’s a sincere, if not occasionally puzzling film about loss, which just tangentially also involves monsters from another dimension. Whether those monsters are real or psychic trauma made into horrible, fanged flesh isn’t entirely clear, but their impact is the same either way. Aubrey (Virginia Gardner, the 2018 reboot of Halloween) is stunned with grief over the unexplained death of her best friend, Grace. There’s some suggestion that Aubrey, living overseas, hadn’t been there for Grace when she most needed her, and she struggles with the guilt of that, as well as the ghost of a relationship that ended due to her own infidelity. Rather than find comfort with Grace’s other friends and family, she spends the night at Grace’s quirky apartment, examining evidence of her little life like a “please touch” museum exhibit.

Her one-person funeral wake ends abruptly, however, when Aubrey rises the next morning and find the whole town covered in a thick layer of snow, and virtually everyone in it has disappeared, leaving behind a few splotches of blood as an ominous sign. Aliens have invaded, and they’re both unfriendly and uninterested in communicating. Aubrey makes contact with a survivor via walkie-talkie, who gives her a signal that not only drives the aliens away, but sends her to different planes of existence (including, in one disorienting scene, the set of the very movie we’re watching). She soon learns that Grace knew about both the aliens and the signal, and recorded the signal on a series of mixtapes specifically for Aubrey to stop the apocalypse. All she has to do is find them.

If you go into Starfish expecting answers, or any kind of real plot resolution, you’ll be disappointed.

It’s appropriate that Starfish concludes on a Sigur Ros song. The whole movie feels like the music of the Icelandic dreampop band – eerie, inscrutable, and moving in an indescribable way. On its surface level, it’s yet another indie drama about beautiful sad people, set to a hip soundtrack of everything from Charlie Rich to Sparklehorse. It occasionally feels a little too precious, like Garden State crossed with The Mist. Then it shakes you up with unsettling imagery such as a man with gaping hole where his face should be, or Aubrey crossing a desolate, snow-covered landscape with a wolf’s pelt draped over her head.

It’d be quick to dismiss her as an “unlikely hero,” that most dusty of movie clichés, but Aubrey isn’t just unlikely, she’s unwilling, at least at first. She’d prefer to handle an alien invasion in the same way she’s handling Grace’s death (and every other difficult situation in her life), by locking herself away refusing to deal with it. Aubrey isn’t even able to face the ex-boyfriend she hurt, whatever would suggest that she has the temerity to literally save the entire planet? Only Grace believed in her, and she’s currently unavailable for pep talks.

If you go into Starfish expecting answers, or any kind of real plot resolution, you’ll be disappointed. We never learn about what the aliens are, or where they come from. There are no scenes of chaos in the streets, or even a newscaster offering some expository dialogue. Whatever happened, Aubrey missed most of it because she was hiding, wrapped up too much in her own pain to notice – just as she was when Grace died.

And what about Grace? What do we know about this young woman, other than she was “always right,” according to her headstone? It’s baffling and a little cruel that she would keep to herself the knowledge that there’s evidently a rip in the fabric of the universe in which murderous aliens can enter and leave our world, and the only way that rip can be repaired (or torn open again) is through a series of radio signals. She trusts Aubrey to get the job done, but makes it challenging for her, by hiding the tapes containing the signal all over town.

Maybe it’s to toughen Aubrey up, and make her into the hero what’s left of the world needs. Or maybe it’s a sly bit of payback, for leaving Grace on her own when she was scared and didn’t know what to do. Or maybe it’s a little less complicated than that. Maybe it’s just that, as Grace notes in her journal, “it feels good to have a secret.”

Starfish Trailer