Review: ‘Cocoon’ / ‘Lifeforce’

9 February, 2013 (08:10) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Turner Classic Movies will show Cocoon, one of Ron Howard's pretty-good movies, this coming Sunday, Feb. 10, at 2:45 p.m. Pacific Time. The following review appeared in The Weekly during the film's 1985 first run. Also on screens then was another sci-fi film in a very different key, Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce. That won't be on TCM (which is showing Cocoon because of the Oscar it won for Don Ameche), but Lifeforce is available on DVD. However, you really should wait for the Shout! Factory upgrade of it, coming out on Blu-ray and DVD in April. - RTJ]

[originally published in The Weekly, June 26, 1985]

Blue steel pending: Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, and Don Ameche in ‘Cocoon’

The summer braindeath alert is still in force, but the Cineaste General has just announced two additional safe zones in which the filmgoer can move without undue fear of contamination. Somewhat surprisingly, both abut the science-fiction genre, a plague-ridden territory where video-game special effects and kiddie cant are habitually substituted for intelligently impelled narrative and a provocative point of view. Nevertheless, Cocoon and Lifeforce may both be recommended to discerning viewers, even though they happen to be light years apart in style, tone, content, and likelihood of achieving commercial longevity.

Of the two, the apparent class act is Cocoon. It’s the latest film from actor-turned-terrific-movie-director Ron Howard, whose romantic comedy-fantasy Splash last summer was an entertainment of rare freshness and enchantment. Its packagers are Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, who first enabled Steven Spielberg to set his Jaws for the unwary moviegoer. They’ve supplied Howard with a nifty story idea (by David Saperstein), two-thirds of a good screenplay (Tom Benedek), and a cast unmatched for professionalism and appeal, if not marquee clout: Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Gilford, Brian Dennehy, and Steve Guttenberg.

Most of the aforenamed play residents of a Florida retirement community called Sunny Shores, where they sit waiting, with varying degrees of contentment and resignation, for the Grim Reaper to pay a house call. Actually Ameche, Brimley, and the terminally ill Cronyn don’t do much sitting. They’ve lately taken to trespassing on the disused palatial estate next door and paddling, like truant sixth-graders, in the indoor pool.

One day they spy the real-estate lady showing the grounds to some prospective renters. When next they sneak a dip in the pool, there are several weird, barnacle-encrusted objects like oversized eggs resting on the bottom, the usually cool water is unaccountably warm, and the rollicking oldsters find they feel … well sir, they feel like horny teenagers. One of them even boasts of having a hard-on. So does his pal. And Brimley? “Blue steel. A cat couldn’t scratch it!” Off they go to their respective wives and ladyfriend.

Viewers of the film have already been supplied a clue to the mystery of this Fountain of Youth, and what kind of people the new renters are. The movie opens with a small boy (the Brimley character’s grandson, Barret Oliver) taking a last look through his astronomical telescope before climbing into bed for the night. He trades goodnights with his offscreen mother, and then, as “I love you” hangs on the air, the camera seems to travel out along the barrel of the telescope and crane right up into the heavens. We bend around a planet or two, move into absolute shadow in which, after a moment, elusive images, as of a world undersea, grow barely perceptible. Back on Earth, Spielbergian light flickers among the clouds, and from beneath a known sea, dolphins rally to attend some luminous visitation. Rays of the same light hang dustlike in the water, revealing/concealing some of those egg shapes on the sea bottom amid vague forms that may be architectural. A nexus of legend, of lost worlds and phantom rapport between alien species, shimmers in prologue. It’s a wondrous beginning for a film, the very energy of the image-movement, of camera and editing, instinct with sweetness and delight: I love you, and I’m going to tell you a story.

***

The telling of that story will quite properly be left to the film itself. For now, it’s sufficient to note that much of the beauty of Cocoon, like that of Spielberg’s great Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has to do with its deft, loving observation of the things of this Earth. Director Howard has complete faith in both his actors and his characters. He can take a scene fraught with TV-cute peril, like the one in which the happily bemused Tandy, Stapleton, and Vernon, playing bridge, wordlessly become aware that they all had sex the night before, and make it glow with real wit and joy.

That’s to be expected of a director who’s been an actor since preschool days, but Howard’s also sharp in his camera sense. Besides that exhilarating opening, he studs his movie with little in-progress coups that speak to the eye and heart without breaking narrative stride.

I’m thinking of a lovely moment when the rejuvenated septuagenarians are out for their first big night on the town. The boys spruce up in the men’s room and then, collecting the orchids they’ve bought for their “dates,” head out into the ballroom of St. Petersburg’s vintage big-band club, the Coliseum. Howard doesn’t cut. We’re looking at the conspiratorial confab in the back hall, then trucking right along behind the guys as they hustle into the great gold-lit dome, the surge of big-band sound, and the company of their ladies fair. The space and the possibilities just open up.

Whereas that shot takes us along for the ride, at other times Howard will cut to an unexpected, sometimes picturesque, sometimes subtly off-center longshot while a more or less stationary activity is in progress—for instance, a nighttime on-deck conversation between fishing-boat skipper Steve Guttenberg and the fetching female member (Tahnee Welch) of the strange foursome that has rented his boat to carry out their undersea collecting. The shift in perspective, the insinuating addition of all that negative space, the way interceding deck paraphernalia now partially obscures the principals from view, all lend a teasing flexion to the simple boy–girl scene, as if to say, “You know, there’s something really extraordinary happening over there, even if it isn’t apparent in this casual glance.”

If Cocoon is not, in toto, quite the extraordinary film it promises to be for awhile, the director deserves little of the blame. He came aboard late, when the project had already been four years in development. Although Tom Benedek’s screenplay adroitly defines the characters, raises provocative questions about age and the allure of prolonged life, and plots an efficient narrative course up to the film’s second major turning point (when the whole Sunny Shores community gets wise to the Fountain of Youth and fatally compromises the aliens’ project), the last section of the movie is disappointingly contrived and its finale more than a little secondhand. Still, Cocoon is two-thirds of one of the year’s best movies, and certainly a summer pleasure not to be missed.

***

Of Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires, an acquaintance of mine has remarked, “He makes speeches all the way through, just using the characters to deliver them.” In Lifeforce, the film version of Wilson’s novel written by Dan O’Bannon (Dark StarAlien) and Ron Jakoby and directed by Tobe Hooper, this didactic method has been translated into hurtling, headlong energy, a complex of Hammer Films–style huggermugger and the blackly comic craziness of George Romero’s Night of the Dawn of the Day of the Living Dead movies.

Halley’s Comet is drawing nigh Earth and an Anglo-American mission has gone up to meet and examine it. Radar detects a huge, phallic mass at the head of the comet, and a team jets over to have a look. Down a long channel girded with something like hi-tech blood vessels, they find three nude humanoid forms, one female and two male, encased in crystal. The specimens are brought back to the ship, everyone on board begins to feel kinda drained—and then, without transition, we’re back in Earth’s orbit where a docking crew discovers the spacecraft gutted by fire, its only occupants dead human husks and the same three perfectly preserved humanoids. So much for the first five minutes or so of the movie.

Lifeforce is a pretty curious specimen in its own right. Its sci-fi/horror concept is epic in scale and metaphysical reach, but the casting is catchpenny: The Stunt Man‘s Steve Railsback, Equus‘ Peter Firth, some adenoidal English types like Frank Finlay, Michael Gothard, Patrick Stewart. Star Wars‘ John Dykstra marshaled the special effects and Jedi–James Bond cameraman Alan Hume photographed, but someone somewhere along the line, probably trashmaster producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, appears to have lost faith in the picture and sent it to the drugstore for processing. The script is a jaggedy thing, with time sequence scrambled either desperately or radically—it’s hard to be sure. Yet as the plague of spaceborne vampirism engulfs London, Hooper’s direction unflinchingly goes with the craziness of the concept, and his movie goes like a bat out of hell.

Lifeforce is getting the bum’s rush on the distribution and exhibition front, with local first-run engagements in some of the farthest-flung and least appealing venues. But it’s worth chasing. Wilson’s story not only works a striking variation on vampire mythology, it operates (as Kathleen Murphy has observed) as a ferocious allegory of human connection that sees ail relationships, all identity-games, as essentially vampiric tradeoffs of sexual and psychic energy. There are half a dozen set-pieces in Lifeforce that succeed stunningly well on the shock-effect level; but the shocks are also shocks of recognition, powerful confrontation with ideas in motion, the kind of ideas that can be put across most lividly only in the frenzied fantasias of the horror genre.

Copyright © 1985 by Richard T. Jameson

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