Ok, NOW we can do Cocoon.
That’s right, we’re done with my five supplementary movies, to make up for the Fox collection’s astonishing gap between 1980 and 85, and so now we can proceed to the next official entry in the set, Ron Howard’s surprise smash hit from the summer of 1985. (Interestingly, it’s also the final film on Vol. II – two down, one to go!)
So I have several prefatory memories of this film growing up. I was 15 when I saw it at the Vineland 4 theater, on a Saturday night, along with both parents. We all loved it, but I was just beginning my career as amateur film critic (having just written all of two reviews), and had several critical comments for Mr. Howard, not the least of which was his plagiarism of Spielberg for the grand meeting-up-with-the-mothership finale. My parents no doubt rolled their eyes at my critique (which would not be the first time), but I went home and put all my notes into some semblance of a written review. The verdict: three stars, out of four. I probably sent it in somewhere (there were a few publications that took unsolicited movie reviews back then), but naturally got no response. Ah, well; the life of a writer.
Cocoon was also the kickoff of my first “Movie Summer” (see separate blog on this topic). It sort of whetted my appetite for the banquet of cinematic delicacies that was waiting for me within just a few short weeks. I think I saw The Goonies after this, followed shortly by Back to the Future, and then that was all she wrote. So it wasn’t just a good movie on its own, but it was also tied in with so many other wonderful concurrent offerings that helped make those dog days the pinnacle of my lifetime moviegoing experience. To use the title of a pop-song that went #1 that summer, it was “Heaven.”
And now? It hasn’t lost a single bit of appeal for me; in fact I may even love it more than I did before as its themes of aging and revitalization touch a greater nerve for me now that I can more acutely recognize my own mortality. Howard, in his audio commentary, discussed how his wife, a psychologist specializing in geriatrics, encouraged him to focus on the human elements of the script – emphasizing the senior citizens’ spouses as well as their own individual lives. Howard, of course, is an actors’ director, and he was the perfect choice to helm the project – his understanding of he fears and foibles of the old aren’t al that different from those of the young, particularly when he get to be young courtesy the powers of some visiting aliens. And Howard also had an early knack for handling special effects, weaving the science-fiction elements into the human story without compromising either.
And, as we all know, it went on the gross well over 75 million – a surprise to many, but not to me. As William Goldman noticed in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, there’s a huge population out there who want to see movies about people over 50. It’s that demographic that made On Golden Pond and equally surprising hit just a few years earlier. And when a great film is made about them – hell, how about just a very good film that’s made about them – fireworks happens. And people go back and see it again, and tell their friends. And before long, it becomes a classic, ready to be enjoyed by future audiences, who also want to see quality film about older people.
Cocoon opens with a boy’s telescope, innocent eyes peering at he heavens, the same heavens that open up to allow some extraterrestrial entities to alight near a lost underwater colony. But now, we shift to a senior citizens home near St. Petersburg, Florida, and follow Art (Don Ameche) and Ben (Wilford Brimley), navigating their insular community with friend Joe (Hume Cronyn), his wife Alma (Jessica Tandy), Ben’s wife Mary (Maureen Stapleton), and Don’s potential love interest Bess (Gwen Verdon). Ben’s grandson, David, gives him comfort, along with his octogenarian friends, but when one of his co-tenants dies, the reminder of his maturity looms large. His only real solace – sneaking off to swim at a luxury club pool with friends Art and Joe.
Meanwhile, captain of a charter fishing boat Jack Bonner gets hired by a man named Walter (Brian Dennehy). He, along with two guys and a beauty named Kitty (Tahnee Welch), need the vessel to pick up some cocoons far offshore. They furtively place the cocoons in a pool, that pool, and the next time our grey-haired boys take a dip, they become immediately rejuvenated. The get their libidos back, go out dancing all night, and Joe’s cancer goes into remission. They feel young al right, but maybe too young – Joe’s wife suspects infidelity, and Art gets somewhat drunk with power. Maybe the Fountain of Youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Before long, Jack discovers his current employers’ true identities (Kitty strips naked, removing her clothes and skin), and so do the old boys, when one of their pool trips gets interrupted. Ben bargains with Walter to let them keep swimming, but his promise not to let anyone else partake gets broke when the entire home leads a mass exodus to get some of that pool water themselves, leading to a dehydration of two of the cocoons, along with their alien inhabitants. Enraged Walter suddenly becomes mournful over the loss of two friends, but he offers the elders a deal – come back with them to their home planet of Antarea, where no one gets sick or dies. All of them, along with 20 friends, accept the offer. After tearful goodbyes, and hot pursuit by the Coast Guard and local police, they meet of with the Antrean mothership, who takes them skyward. Believed to be lost at sea, they are mourned at a funeral. Only grandson David knows the truth.
As I mentioned, Cocoon affected me more viscerally this time. For one thing, I’m more familiar with these veteran actors’ oeuvres, and I certainly got more involved in their matured characters. But if I had to pick one aspect of he film that really jazzed me, and probably accounted for its public appeal, it had to be their rejuvenation – specifically the scenes where they shoot hoops, seduce their wives and generally get a new lease on life: in essence, the money shots. There’s something inherently so satisfying about seeing Don Ameche breakdance (that’s why he got the Oscar in this de facto ensemble work). But equally affecting are the scenes involving elder heartbreak – like the brief shot of anonymous nursing-home death, and the wrenching scene where Art and Mary say goodbye to their grandson for the last time, unbeknownst to his mom. This is one of the most emotional movie scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’m not exaggerating.
And therein lies the key to Cocoon’s continued appeal, even after 30 years. Howard made these characters real – not blue-haired stereotypes but living, breathing human beings, warts and all. And even if their dialogue isn’t always cracker-jack, or their direction on the same, authentic level as Altman, the tone rings just right. Howard is a sentimentalist, to be sure, but he keeps the proceedings crisp enough not to get too sugary. And even so he’s got a tight plot to rescue him if need be, particularly in the second act we things get more dramatic, not Howard’s forte.
How was my initial assessment of the finale being too Spielbergian? Accurate, surely, but forgivable, particularly by modern standards, when the ending would’ve been three times more hyped up and involved a few dozen CGI effects. I don’t really mind the rip off now because at least he’s stealing from the best, or at least the best back then. And again, it hold up well in modern times because the emphasis is on careful, methodical character development. Would any modern studio even approach such an idea? With veteran actors? Or even a character actor like Brian Dennehy in the lead? No way, hose?
My initial rating of three stars? Okay, but I’ll up it by a half-star, still hesitant for the full four because of its broad direction, particularly in the second half.
Wait, fuck that! What am I saying? If it works, it works. Cocoon gets…