Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires).
Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg (Kick the Can). There, OAPs rediscover their inner children thanks to the arrival of “Magical Negro” Scatman Crowthers. Cocoon feels like a Twilight Zone plot stretched to movie length, but absent the kind of clear moral or final scene twist common to that series. Indeed, Howard and writer Tom Benedeck are (again) so damn nice they are unable to present any point of view on the choices facing this group. They retire from the action, regroup, and hope that merely raising the prospect of objections covers all bases (that’s thought-provoking entertainment, you see).
I can’t say I was overly enamoured by Cocoon even on first viewing. Its most arresting feature was Tahnee Welch’s buttocks (so revisiting it on a recent Film Four screening, I found it especially egregious that this scene had been edited for a more family friendly timeslot; retaining the cussing was just fine, though). For me, the science fiction trappings were its selling point rather than the crumbly old folk. The real problem with it then, and it’s just as clearly the case now, was that it doesn’t have a pulse. Added to that, its scenarios are demographically contrived; cast Steve Guttenberg (at this time he was inconceivably considered a box office draw thanks to the Police Academy series) to bring in the young folk. The sub-Strieber aliens and sub-Close Encounters effects will do the rest.
Kael had a point. Cocoon is not a terrible film but it’s a terribly bland one. It intentionally fumbles its dramatic beats and goes for easy emotion (almost) every time. It’s worse a crime than being straight-up empty-headed because it pays lip service to themes of aging, sickness and mortality while refusing to have a point of view on any of them. It’s very nearly the opposite of last year’s Amour in choosing an unremitting tone that leaves the viewer unstirred by anything other than fatigue.
Robert Zemeckis was originally attached to the film but Fox allegedly got cold feet; test screenings suggested that Romancing the Stone was going to flop (it didn’t). Whether he would have indulged the sentiment as much as Howard is debatable (or rather, whether the Zemeckis of the ‘80s would have done; the Polar Express director would have lapped it up), but anyone using Howard’s Splash as a guide might have though the same. This was the actor turned director’s fourth feature, but Splash (his previous picture) had established him with box office credentials.
His subsequent run has been one of the most consistent of any Hollywood director, no doubt partly due to a consistently middle-of-the-road, personality-free, presence. His one stylistic trait is that he brings nothing of himself to his films (a defining absence), aside from a pervading niceness. For a long time, it was even hard to summon up much criticism towards what he did (that would change decisively with The Grinch). Even gritty, edgy Ron isn’t really all that edgy (Ransom, The Missing). He doesn’t really feel it. The result is that he’s made some solid movies based on solid material (the aforementioned Splash and Ransom, Apollo 13) and some festering turkeys based on rancid scripts (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code). At other times, it’s his lack of sensibility that renders half-formed pictures that desperately needed a push (The Paper, Edtv, Frost/Nixon).
Despite a general tone of indulgent veneration for the aged (one which equates with the Spielbergian nostalgia for childhood; both are somewhat blissful simplifications), Cocoon has a number of structural peculiarities that distinguish from its expected route. If this were an episode of The Twilight Zone, there would surely be a moral twist if the characters chose immortality; it would become clear that it was actually a curse and not a blessing at all. Instead, the movie mimics Close Encounters, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) leaves his family behind in favour of the great adventure. So too, Ben (Wilford Brimley) and Mary (Maureen Stapleton) opt to desert their daughter and grandchild. This is despite the pain it causes them; they reason that nature has dealt them a bad lot so why shouldn’t they. It’s a curiously selfish act, one where self-preservation takes precedence over the tug of familial bonds. As is par for the course with Howard, it is enough that they are shown to wrestle with the decision.
As if to reinforce this Bernie (Jack Gilford), the singular force of opposition who is shown throughout to condemn their quest for rejuvenation as going against nature, crumbles when his wife Rose (Herta Ware) expires. Carrying her to the life-giving pool, he discovers it is too late. Later, he meets the departing retirement home inmates and tells them that he is going to stay behind. He recovers his personal conviction but his lapse in judgement is enough to provide him (and by implication the audience) with sufficient understanding of why the others are doing what they are doing. It’s a cheap trick, really.
Indeed, we see little reason, other than self-indulgence and some dependable performances from veteran actors, to get behind these old duffers. Art (Don Ameche), Joe (Hume Cronyn) and Ben are introduced as likeable fellows who are stoic in the face of the tribulations borne of age (be it failing eyesight or cancer); they still get up to pranks with the lady folk, and like naughty school kids sneak into an unoccupied property to use its swimming pool. This is the kind of typically misty-eyed view of the elderly that afflicts most movies. They are undoubtedly another species, say the filmmakers, but if they are applied the traits of children or teenagers (rather than adults) perhaps they will be more relatable.
The effects of the water are instantaneous and pronounced. On their collective libidos. Each gets home and gives his other half a right good seeing too (in Joe’s case Jessica Tandy’s Alma, while Art pays a call on Gwen Verdon’s dancer Bess). The next day the ladies are glowing from the results of a pronounced rogering. That’s about as much insight as we’re granted; they are receptacles for their menfolk and have little in the way of independent personality (they follow like sheep when the off world trip is offered).
There’s an exception to this, and it’s the only point where the movie gets vaguely challenging or develops a dramatic backbone. Joe, his lustiness returned (and with the ability to act upon it) goes for a night out and picks up a waitress. Joe returns home, but Alma locks him out; she has seen this all before. The idea that there’s no wisdom involved in aging, that if there is any it’s more of a side effect of bodily decrepitude, is a (ahem) potent one. But it carries little ultimate weight; Alma forgives Joe when he proclaims that he’d stay and die with her rather than leave on his own. Howard and Benedek might have shown some balls if they’d followed this gambit, Alma had refused and then Joe up and left her. After all, that wouldn’t really be so different to Ben turning down the desperate pleas of his grandson to join them and not even saying goodbye to his daughter.
Walter: Put down that cocoon!
If the movie had actually dealt with the repercussions of such ideas it might have held some resonance, but Howard can’t even muster any condemnation for residents’ part in draining the pool of its properties. The retirees descend on the pool en masse and not only sap its vital forces but also start messing about with the cocoons. The vision is (again) one of people who never learn respect or decorum, no matter how many years pass. What was Benedek’s intent here? No lesson appears to be learned by the trio. Nor the aliens, it seems at first glance. We’ve already seen their leader Walter (Brian Dennehy) grant Ben permission to use the pool against his better judgement. Now, on discovering all their good work has been undone, and that one of their number is dead (the cocoons contain dormant aliens left behind 10 or 11,000 years ago when the aliens last had an outpost on Earth), Walter responds by offering the old buzzards a trip on his spaceship.
Is it because they showed him this strange human emotion called grief? He all-but says as much as a tear cascades down his cheek (he has never experience the pain and grief of death before). You see, it’s all right that the OAPs killed one of the aliens; it’s a valuable life lesson! More off-putting still is the all-hands-on-deck offer to help put the cocoons back where they were found. It seems that Walter was so fogged up with sadness he couldn’t even come up with that option himself. Thank goodness the old farts were there to prevent him from bringing his aliens home; if they hadn’t, they could then help to s things right back where they started (minus one husk of a pal of Walter’s) and get a trip into space to boot. See, selfishness pays as long as there’s a twinge of regret. Put it like that Ben and co couldn’t have planned things better (it’s at this point the movie is serviced with its prerequisite third act chase sequence; God knows, it needed something to liven things up even if it is wholly predictable).
Walter: We’re Antareans. We come from the planet Anterea.
Why does Walter offer them all a place on his ship? Because there’s room? Because they have something to give as “teachers and students”? Because he’s so loftily superior he fails to see that they need to learn things in their own good time rather than be rewarded for misdeeds like spoilt children? Surely if he’s that advanced, he’d realise they have something to learn through accepting finite cycles? The aliens are wholly benevolent in Cocoon and, while they have something of the classic grey look, their appearance is significantly humanised. They give off a white (angelic) glow and hover in the air as if they are fairie kind. They also possess a sort of post-New Age ambivalence; they are creators of Atlantis but flippant enough to make quips about its fate (“sinking never occurred to me”). Unless I heard wrong their pronouncement that there were no people 11,000 years ago seems fishy, but their (literally) glowing credentials are emphasised by the esteem with which the dolphins hold them. It’s jolly enough to see Dennehy in a nice guy role, but the rest of the quartet makes no impression (Welch is very pretty, of course, but it’s not hard to figure out why she didn’t go on to greater success). There might have been potential, but you scupper that when you make them bland do-gooders (is it a coincidence that the following year Star Trek IV would fixate on aquatic life; Cocoon’s ecological aspect is paper thin, however).
Death is most definitely something to be feared in Cocoon. One might suggest Benedeck is offering the alien experience as a metaphor for religion. That, if you are a believer, you will be taken up to heaven (the mothership) and granted eternal life (“We’ll never be sick, we’ll never be older and we’ll never die”). It’s non-discriminatory afterlife to boot, since there is no vetting process and it doesn’t require that you are a good person (it must be a Christian heaven however, since Jewish Bernie remains behind).
The view of retirement home residents as dawdling well-meaning types who just need waking up to the idea that life is for the living (or some such) is fairly inoffensively patronising as these things go. Certainly, placed next to the kind of crowd-pleasing moments that focus groups adore. It’s every bit as funny, as we all know, to hear old people spouting crudities as it is infants (one of the opening lines attests that the water in the pool will “make your old ball sack shrivel up”).
Then there are the all too predictable set ups (the pay-offs to the eye test, the cancer diagnosis where the tester/doctor is staggered to see the walking dead in tiptop shape). Old people just want to have fun, which is why an ear-destroying dose of terrible ‘80s electronica accompanies a montage of slow motion pool diving. This was the era for the music montage sequence, although it’s still a mainstay of the romcom, so later we’re treated to second portions as Don Ameche struts his stuff and – best of all! – breakdances. Obviously that was the scene in the trailer that got people into the cinemas. Old people. They’re so funny.
The performances are consistently agreeable, however. It’s difficult to conclude that Ameche won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for anything other than being in his 70s and having a less-than-convincing stand-in for the breakdancing scene. But he’s likable. Cronyn and Tandy (a real life couple) do their best to inject pathos into their scenes when given half a chance. And Brimley, in a casting decision worthy of Clive Dunn, is 50 playing 20 years older with great conviction (it’s a part that must have led directly to the terribly twee TV series Our House with Shannen Doherty).
Jack: None of this is bad for America, I guess.
Guttenberg does his curly goofball act but remains just about inoffensive (strange to think his stardom was over pretty much by the time he hit 30). There’s an amusing moment where he’s seen reading The Complete Book of Extra-terrestrial Encounters, but his most memorable moment is his alien sex scene (“We show ourselves” explains Welch’s Kitty). It’s his reward for being a good honest Peeping Tom. I’m not sure why Jack doesn’t go with the aliens; perhaps he (understandably) finds the prospect of a bunch of crusties swinging from the chandeliers and shagging like there’s no tomorrow a disincentive. Perhaps Kitty just wasn’t that great.
Cocoon’s other Oscar was for Best Special Effects (it was two for two), beating out Back to the Future. The animatronic dolphins are very good, and the aliens themselves are perfectly acceptable in an over-familiar way. The alien spaceship is quite poor however; it possesses none of the majesty of the (on the surface similar looking) Close Encounters craft. James Horner’s score is awash with horrid twinkly music. His dramatic scores may repeat themselves (Star Trek II, Aliens) but at least they have some heft. This one announces the need to succumb to wretched blubbing before anything hanky-sodden happens. Cinematographer Donald Peterman had a run of sea-themed movies during the ‘80s (Howard’s Splash and Star Trek IV included). Unfortunately for him (who knows, perhaps he thought he was retiring on a high) his last picture was the hopeless Howard adaptation of The Grinch.
Cocoon was a big hit in the summer of 1985; it finished the year sixth in the US (Howard’s second Top 10 hit in as many years). But it’s belated sequel Cocoon: The Return did next to no business three years later. The absence of Ron Howard can’t be the reason (he was off doing Willow, but most of the cast came back); it’s simply that this was a movie with novelty value alone to recommend it. No one was demanding a follow up, any more than for Sister Act 2 or City Slickers 2. Spielberg meanwhile, no doubt cursing his luck, was quick to get in on the old people-and-aliens act; he secured Cronyn and Tandy for the (very) minor hit *batteries not included. Tandy’s twilight years renaissance peaked with her Oscar win for Driving Miss Daisy in 1990.
Ron Howard makes average movies, so if you go into them with average expectations you usually won’t be disappointed. The only ones that exceed such mediocre shackles are ones that might have been great in the hands of another filmmaker. There was no such danger with Cocoon, which favours for simplistic pronouncements and Kael’s dreaded life-affirming outlook over the potential of its own moral conundrums.