Cocoon (1985), Dir. Ron Howard
Don "Talking Dog" Ameche, Wilford "Has the Diabetes" Brimley, Jessica "Driven By Morgan Freeman" Tandy and every other actor who'd get the senior discount at Denny's.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:
E.T. with old people? Directed by Opie? No thank you.
Despite being an early film in what would later develop into a surprisingly robust and successful directing career, Cocoon is a perfect example of the typical Ron Howard movie. Competently directed but lacking any sort of signature style. Never particularly boring but never particularly enthralling. Compelling, maybe even heartbreaking on the first viewing, but it all falls apart in the rear view mirror as you realize how the drama stems from manipulative heartstring tugging instead of true human emotion. I don't want to pile on Howard. The man's not a disaster. He's just not an artist. He makes a solid product, not a transcendent experience.
Cocoon is the perfect example of a film that uses science fiction tropes to explore and dissect a common theme, in this case, death and dying. We follow a bunch of old people in a retirement home and for the first chunk of the film, we see them complain about their lives, eat bad food, wish they had viagra and die. Then, mystical alien creatures arrive and offer to make them immortal for reasons that are never all that adequately explained. The point is made though: do you choose to get Highlandered and live forever or do you stay on Earth and die with your buddies?
Maybe it's because Howard himself was still relatively young at the time the film was made, but the whole conflict, while interesting, feels tragically under-explored. Many of the elderly protagonists follow the classic "make the old people eccentric and audiences will immediately embrace them" Hollywood routine and no one truly feels like any senior citizen I've ever met. However, Howard does one thing very, very right. He casts a bunch of familiar faces, actors we've loved for years, so our nostalgic feelings for these people immediately come into play and give us something to feel invested in.
When I said Howard was good at tugging the 'ol heartstrings, I meant it. As a piece of populist entertainment, Cocoon succeeds on just about every level, delivering a movie that feels like a real crowd-pleaser, full of humor and adventure and drama and special effects. In fact, I feel bad for the next paragraph or two I'm about to write because enough of the film works that I'm almost willing to let things slide and end the column here by saying "Don't go out of your way to see Cocoon, but it's a fun time."
But that's not how I roll. Cocoon has scenes of individual greatness and a group of truly memorable protagonists, but it has problems. Some of these problems involve the dated special effects, which really haven't held up at all, but I'm willing to let that slide because I've forgive worse. What really bothers me about Cocoon is that there is a great character movie hidden somewhere in here, but someone, maybe the writer, maybe Howard, maybe even a studio exec, decided there needed to be more action, more direct conflict.
Look, an alien offering a group of elderly folks immortality and the chance to live on an alien planet and them wrestling with whether or not to take the offer is a great conflict. It's a conflict that the audience can get deeply involved with and actually allows everyone to debate amongst themselves. It's a character conflict. An inner conflict.
That's why I'm disappointed Cocoon ends with a boat chase, a totally unnecessary, completely inorganic action beat that feels like it was wedged into the script to make a more "exciting" climax.
And what about the scene where Steve Guttenberg has pool sex with the pretty alien lady he fancies? Isn't inter-species sex weird enough, strange enough, to hold our attention, particularly since her version of intercourse apparently involves flinging her lifeforce into her mate? Nooo, her lifeforce has to spiral out of control and wreak minor havoc in a brief special effects sequence. Why? Because they needed a scene with special effects. Rather than concentrate on the characters, on their emotions, the scene becomes about the (Oscar winning, by the way), special effects.
The second of the film's Oscars went to Don Ameche, who is one of the first people to discover that the derelict swimming pool he and his buddies have been using has been transformed into a fountain of youth by an alien race who are using it to preserve the hibernating bodies of many of their friends who were left behind when they abandoned Atlantis thousands of years ago (as you can see, my Pre-Viewing plot description was more than a little wrong). Ameche is fantastic here, so understated that I'm shocked he actually got that Oscar (although voter nostalgia may have something to with that). In fact, I found myself loving all of the elderly characters and sympathizing with their quest. The other plot, following the aliens as they hire Guttenberg's boat to locate their missing friends, is pretty weak sauce in comparison, but every time the movie focused on the old guys getting erections and bowling really well and dancing the night away because of Super Alien Powers, the movie had me. Truly great roles for older actors are so rare (most great actors end their careers playing the wizened grandfather for two scenes), so to see these great thespians get a chance to be lively, to play characters who are fun and alive, well, it's a blast.
Cocoon is just too Hollywood for it's own good, I suppose. I can forgive many of its flaws (although the '80s soundtrack is bad enough to almost be a dealbreaker), but these flaws keep it from being the movie I think it wants to be. Instead of an intimate portrait of death and dying told through the lens of science fiction, we get a "rousing" adventure filled with false conflicts that only push the interesting stuff to the side.
But it's still not bad. Let's end this piece as I started it: Don't go out of your way to see Cocoon, but it's a fun time.
(Next week's motion picture film has something to do with an evil computer. I think. I haven't seen it. Don't judge me.)
A Boy and His Dog
The Thing From Another World