An apocalyptic event happens so subtly in Starfish that you almost don’t notice it. The reasons for that are probably more practical than artistic — it costs money to show widespread devastation — but it adds to the intrigue of this melancholy sci-fi drama, which can feel both realistic and dreamlike, even in the same scene.
It’s nearly a one-woman show, with Virginia Gardner starring as Aubrey, a young woman whose friend, Grace (Christina Masterson), has just died. Tipped off that Grace was working on something that only Aubrey would understand, she breaks into Grace’s apartment go find it, falls into a reverie of memories and dreams — she is haunted by a particular event involving a man named Edward (Eric Beecroft) — and discovers, when she wakes up in the morning, that there’s a foot of snow on the ground and the town seems deserted. Also, there might be a monster.
Aided by a man’s voice on a CB radio, Aubrey gradually learns that all of this is actually connected to Grace, who was part of a group of people working on capturing mysterious radio signals. While still grieving, and in order to undo the apocalyptic thing that happened, and despite uncertainty about what, exactly, the hell is going on, Aubrey has to find the clues Grace left behind on a series of cassette tapes. Each song inspires a vision (dream? hallucination?) that seems to draw on Aubrey’s real experiences without being quite real (one such vision is animated), teasing out hints about her past.
It is frustrating that the film’s cryptic, elliptical nature results in some seemingly relevant things never being explained, but first-time writer-director A.T. White surrounds his intriguing plot with a moody atmosphere and effortlessly cool indie-rock soundtrack to sustain it. (White also composed the evocative musical score.) The strong central performance by Gardner — the only person onscreen most of the time — is another key, giving us intimate access to Aubrey’s thoughts and emotions as reality vaguely falls apart around her.