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COCOON was one of the very few science fiction movies of the 80s that managed to pass Camus by. Now is a perfect opportunity to catch up with this well loved tale of elderly rejuvenation and benevolent aliens as Eureka releases its new Blu-ray.
 
  "One of the great things about being a director as a life choice is that it can never be mastered. Every story is its own kind of expedition, with its own set of challenges."
 
Director Ron Howard

 

A Necessary Emotional Aside: A short pause to let it sink in. One week ago, the U.K. voted by a narrow margin to leave the European Union. The politics of fear and the stoking of ill-educated prejudice have spread their poison among the largely older voters who made up the majority of the 'Leave' vote. Christ knows how we would react to the ultimate in immigrants, those from a different planet. That has to be one of the worst segues in film appreciation history but I'm royally pissed off and oddly nervous about this country's new standing in the rest of the world. Onwards. That said, Cocoon is a very nice film without the insipid connotations sometimes attached to that very innocent word. The accompanying booklet to the Blu-ray release of Cocoon is a fine read featuring many good points and observations. I know that because I have made the same points and observations in my review. But I didn't read the booklet until I was on the eve of finishing my piece so believe me or don't. I guess this isn't the age or the country to worry about the truth anymore, is it?

There is a Marks and Spencer's clothing advert on page 19 of a national newspaper today. No doubt the ad is all over the place but as I live in rural farmland, the only place I'm likely to see it is not on a billboard but in a newspaper. It's startling for one reason... The model is (ahem) well over sixty. Shock! Horror! Yes, what's known in the business as 'the grey pound' is highly prized in marketing circles. Those older folks with money to spare now account for almost half of everything sold in the U.K. You'd think the older demographic would be better represented in the actual ads but it's still rare to see. It's even rarer to trust your entire movie to a predominantly older cast. Hollywood is well known for almost exclusively courting the young but despite the two token beautiful people (under 30) to offset the geriatric bias, it's the oldies that carry the show in Ron Howard's Cocoon. Howard himself described the film as Close Encounters on Golden Pond referencing two of its forbears, the former providing the science-fantasy iconography right down to frighteningly similar ETs and alien spaceships as well as the faux-religious aspects and the latter the elderly characters.

Wilfred Brimley and Don Ameche in Cocoon

A mysterious light from the sky shines down on the ocean and a group of inquisitive dolphins. Underwater, we see the ruined signs of an ancient civilisation soon to be identified as the fabled lost city of Atlantis... Uh, OK. A retirement home in Florida provides the principal setting for this soft-hearted, science fantasy tale. The three principal oldies are played by Hollywood legends Don Ameche and Hume Cronyn and personal favourite Wilfred Brimley who had to 'grey up' as he was more than twenty years younger than his peers at the time of shooting. This trio sneak off periodically to take advantage of an abandoned pool attached to a neighbouring estate. A young, struggling boat owner (played by the Police Academy star at that time, Steve Guttenberg) is hired by a curious quartet led by Brian Dennehy. They hire the boat, make a few dives and return to the dock with several large cocoons. The four have hired the pool house where the cocoons are kept underwater. The elderly neighbours are immediately suspicious of the cocoons and when they find them in their illicitly visited swimming pool, they do the first thing human beings do when faced with something strange or unusual. They hit it with a blunt object. Way to go, Homo Sapiens. Swimming with the cocoons in the pool, the trio suddenly find themselves rejuvenated and getting healthier every time they indulge themselves in the energy rich waters.

Well, it's no significant spoiler to reveal that the four cocoon carriers are not exactly what they seem. Brian Dennehy seems to be playing the leader (he has the most lines and his size gives him some authority) with the strikingly attractive Tahnee Welch (Rachel's daughter) playing essentially the love interest to boatman Guttenberg. While the old trio are feeling younger after every splash about, the consequences of this transformation starts to play on their once accepted nearer-to-death existences. This is where Cocoon manages to score a few sneaky goals in amongst Guttenberg's pratfalling and science fiction malarkey. One-sided rejuvenation in what was a long lasting marriage is not exactly a magical ingredient. Ameche is free to woo anew and Brimley happy with his new and improved eyesight but Cronyn wanders back into the folly of youth with all the indiscretions that implies. Staunchly against anything unnatural is another elderly resident Bernie (Jack Gilford). In many ways, he needs the pool power more than most as his wife, played touchingly by Herta Ware is suffering. When alien and human needs collide, something has to be done and a touching alliance of ET and OAP forms to take the movie to its logical conclusion.

Jessica Tandy in Cocoon

I'll say no more on the plot except to mention how Howard managed to get the balance just right between the prosaic and the fantastical. Despite the extra-terrestrial trappings, Cocoon is an actors' showcase. Playing against the men are actresses who have more than proved themselves on stage and screen. Jessica Tandy gets the meatiest role able to play spurned but loving wife to then real life husband Hume Cronyn. Maureen Stapleton is quietly moving as Brimley's disbelieving spouse and Gwen Verdon is the surprised but delighted catch of a revitalized Ameche. Anchoring the film in fantasyland curiously has nothing to do with the aliens or spaceships but one nightclub scene featuring Ameche proving to his new gal how fit he is. I can't imagine this being in the script because it's so locked into the 80s milieu and smacks of improvisation. Dancing smoothly, Ameche suddenly gives us a faintly ridiculous exhibition of expert breakdancing. Somehow I can buy that a pool with alien rejuvenating energy can stave off old age in the interests of the narrative. What I can't accept is the same energy imparting knowledge of the latest breakdancing moves. But hey, audience-pleaser, no doubt.

So, now on to pressing matters, a Mr. Steve Guttenberg and I do not apologise for the pun. In 1982, he played Eddie in one of the best ensemble movies of its time, Diner which featured a heart-achingly young Mickey Rourke. Guttenberg was solid, funny, "I'd give your life if I could have her..." and in his own way engaging as, to be frank, a bit of a prat. He won't marry his intended unless she passes a football trivia test (I mean, Jesus). But Guttenberg was utterly convincing. I have since done a little digging and it seems the man is a saint devoted to good social causes and bringing joy and security to those he supports. No kidding unless IMDb is lying to us. The only hiccough I've found, as Slarek reminded me, is his mention in a Simpsons masonic parody song. On the trivia page on the IMDb site, it says:

The writers of The Simpsons (1989) pay tribute to Guttenberg in the episode "Homer the Great," (Sixth Season; episode 2F09) where he appears as a cartoon and mentioned in the song sung by the Stonecutters ("Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do! We do!").

Steve Guttenberg in Cocoon

Uh, no. Not exactly. They are not paying tribute despite the cartoon Guttenberg's thirty-three frames of "Aw shucks!" during the song. In order for the joke to work, it has to be well known that Guttenberg (did I mention he's a lovely guy in real life?) will not give Laurence Olivier any sleepless nights. Let's just say he has his limitations and his enormous success in the 80s in the Police Academy films was not due to his acting talent but his somewhat goofy star persona. The goofball also inhabits a body that Hollywood frequently holds up as a male ideal. In Cocoon, he's been hired for the physical shtick at which he overplays theatrically but then director Howard didn't rein him in and I suspect that decision made the tone of the movie easier to swallow. There had to be a balance of sorts to the science-fantasy stuff and a goofy Guttenberg was called for. That said, he's an amiable presence in the movie but the goofy grates at times. I'm too aware that he's acting instead of being. Oh, let's not forget he's starring in a movie with older actors whose wonderful and seemingly effortless performances make the film shine brightly. As an odd coincidence, another lyric of the Stonecutters' song is "Who keeps Atlantis off the map?" It seems too much of a coincidence given Atlantis is one of the first things we see in Cocoon.

Cocoon is a safe, upbeat and charming tale of elderly wish-fulfilment which features alien sex with zero physical contact. There is an 'f' word buried in the mix from Wilfred Brimley which even Howard seems surprised by in the commentary but nothing else that's going to give the most sensitive film watcher any problem at all. You could say its gentle nature is a weakness but that may be the decades up to 2016 talking. It's undeniably cute but not so much that it falls into saccharine waters. Those who loved it in 1985 will find nothing to fall out of love with here.

sound and vision

The 1.85:1 aspect ratio leaves narrow black lines at the top and bottom of frame, just as it should be. The scanned print is practically dust and damage free and looks terrific. There's not a great deal of contrast on display (this could be my HD TV). Cinematographer Donald Peterman often framed with as much available light as was offered on location and shot in magic hour in which the ugliest sight can be rendered ethereally beautiful. The visual effects, which garnered an Oscar, are state of the 1985 art which is to say photo-chemical and optical in nature and by today's standards OK but not without a few telltale flaws. I find it odd that director Howard chose to add his main title over a shot where the matte lines were clearly visible around a telescope. After I wrote that, which I still stand by, I read the Cinefex magazine on the film's effects and was staggered by how much I took to be real was in fact fakery of the highest calibre. My hat is tipped to ILM and especially to Robert Short for the mechanical dolphins.

Cocoon

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 may be the go to version of the soundtrack for the more technically minded but in 1985, the mix was originally finished in stereo. Heavens to Betsy, I'm going for the 5.1 – sacrilege perhaps. I love my sub-woofer work out and the stereo just doesn't allow for that. The surrounds envelop as you would expect throwing out a few random voices from the big boat chase at the climax and the separation and depth of the aural ambiance is very pleasing indeed for a film of this age. There's a mixer and sound editor out there with a lot of love for this movie.

There are optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

extra features

Feature-length audio commentary with Director Ron Howard
Howard is informative and to a great degree like his movie – likeable but not exactly challenging or too full of unusual stories. This was his next feature after Splash and he talks about how his wife had an interest in geriatric psychology so the script was reworked to incorporate a few ideas that deepened the characters. He says that they didn't build any sets a few minutes after telling us that the swimming pool was a set built. Uh, OK. He also said something extraordinary perhaps not in the right way... Howard states that "...if twenty minutes ago you would have asked me if Atlantis was in my film, I would have said no!" Memory problems. We're all prone. It's the commentary that made me reevaluate the dolphins. I was so convinced they were real (because they can be trained) that I accepted the mechanical ones as real without hesitation. He points out friends and relations playing extras and notes this was his first Director's Guild nomination nod (I'd be very happy with one of those). On working with James Horner, a frequent collaborator, he remembers producer Lili Fini Zanuck's instruction "Just make it religious, James." She knew which side her Spielbergian bread was buttered. It's a gentle meander of a commentary but still well worth a listen.

Five featurettes: Behind the scenes (6' 56"), Ron Howard profile (2' 34"),
Underwater training (3' 33"), Actors (2' 51"), Creating Antareans (3' 56")
Presented in TV safe 4:3 aspect ratio, bearing the unmistakable patina of American NTSC television, these behind the scene featurettes do their job. There are some canards about the dolphin's smile (it's not smiling, it's a flipping dolphin, it just has that specific physiology) but there are no real surprises among the running time of 19 minutes and 30 seconds but for fans of the film, it's all good stuff if all a tad safe.

Alien spaceship in Cocoon

Three TV spots – 4:3 framing

  1. "From the producers of Jaws..." 00' 31"
  2. "Everlasting life..." 00' 32"
  3. "Fill your heart..." 00' 32"

The TV spots have covered all the bases, sell it on the producers' previous work, sell the angle of how nice it would be to live forever and finally, sell it on the merest suggestion that you're in for some alien sex. Under The Skin this ain't.

Original theatrical trailer (1' 28")
It's a soft sell... With those terrible tag lines voiced by the sepulchral voice over artist, the trailer does what it needs to do but we were taken in by those tag lines in the 80s. The art to writing them is to trick people into thinking they are profound and meaningful while the audience hears them and before they have a chance to say "Hang on, that's meaningless twaddle!" the trailer's over. Job done.

Teaser Trailer (55" and oddly in 2.35:1 aspect ratio)
We hear "Share the wonder... Share the secret..." over barnacled and crab infested old stones (the titular cocoons, no doubt)... Tag line – "It's what life's all about." What? It's certainly a tease but not sure what it can justify teasing.

Brian Dennehy and Tahnee Welch in Cocoon

Cocoon: The Return theatrical trailer (1' 28")
Again what's with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio? Both the original and sequel were shot 1.85:1. With reframed (and not well reframed) SFX shots from the original, it features Steve Guttenberg (who made him a star?) opening his eye willing you to expect the return of the Antareans... Oh, so Gruyèrey.

Collectors booklet featuring a new article on the film by critic James Oliver, and archival imagery
This is fairly light containing only one informative essay on the film covering most of the points I've covered in the review and some behind-the-scene photos. The photos are good value but the essay is not even 2,000 words long (although a fine read in and of itself). For comparison, this review in about 3,000 words long. 2,000 words takes up about three and a half pages of single-spaced A4. I'm not complaining but find it worth comparing to Eureka's many other booklets, which actually deserve the title 'booklet'. I guess I would like to have heard from the effects team or even an above the line participant. No matter. Oliver's essay is a solid one in an attractive, if short, booklet. The four sections contained are (1) Cast and Crew credits, (2) Young At Heart, the James Oliver essay, (3) Viewing Notes and (4) the Blu-ray credits.

summary

On the whole, Cocoon is a gentle delight with some lovely performances and some great special effects some of which show their age just a tad. It's surprisingly moving in places and although it riffs off Close Encounters a little too liberally design wise and especially its penultimate scene, it can be seen as a companion piece rather than an out and out rip off. It's hardly outsider cinema but one for a cosy, entertaining, unchallenging night in.

Cocoon Blu-ray
Cocoon

USA 1985
117 mins
directed by
Ron Howard
produced by
David Brown
Richard D. Zanuck
Lili Fini Zanuck
written by
Tom Benedek
story by
David Saperstein
cinematography
Don Peterman
editing
Daniel Hanley
Michael Hill
music
James Horner
production design
Jack T. Collis
starring
Don Ameche
Wilford Brimley
Hume Cronyn
Brian Dennehy
Jack Gilford
Steve Guttenberg
Maureen Stapleton
Jessica Tandy

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
LPCM 2.0 stereo
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Ron Howard commentary
5 featurettes
TV spots
Trailers
Booklet
distributor
Eureka Entertainment
release date
18 July 2016
review posted
30 June 2016

See all of Camus's reviews