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Phenomenon, written by Gerald DiPego, directed by Jon Turteltaub, produced by Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor (Touchstone Pictures, 1996).

John Travolta has received kudos for his performance in Touchstone Pictures' summer release, Phenomenon. But this film is no mere showcase for an Oscar-winner on a hot streak. Nor is it typical summertime film fare--even though the title and ambiguous teasers created expectations of a glorified "X-Files" episode. Instead, Phenomenon is a well crafted film with a timely, resonant message. Without heavy-handed intellectualizing (or, worse, pandering to anti-intellectual sentiments a la Forrest Gump), Phenomenon tells an inspirational story about humanity's capacity for genius, achievement, and compassion.

Set in a California farming town, the film begins and ends with the birthday celebrations of George Malley (Travolta). At the first gathering, the entire town seems to have shown up. The excellent screenwriting of Gerald DiPego and the gestural cues masterfully directed by Jon Turteltaub establish that it is not a party but a celebration (a subtle but important difference) that everyone turns out for.

It is here that the charismatic George encounters a light which seems to seek him out while he's alone and knocks him to his feet. His closest friends, Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker) and Doc (Robert Duvall), are slightly amused at what they think is a tipsy friend's stumble across the parking lot. It isn't until George stops sleeping, learns new languages in half an hour, reads eight books a day, cracks military ciphers on a lark, invents organic fertilizers, advances solar technology to a new cutting edge, and develops telekinetic abilities that everyone starts to wonder. In short order, the townspeople begin either avoiding George or hounding him to tell them about alien abduction or begging him to perform miracles. Brain scans are ordered. And FBI goons cancel George's appointment with Berkeley professors because his code-breaking pranks make him a security risk.

While George doesn't understand what's happening and is often frightened and lonely, he enjoys his intellectual adventures, reading books he's always wanted to read but never had the confidence or the time to before. He relishes his newfound joie de vivre. The only troubling thing is that he can't describe the wonderful things happening to him without frightening his friends.

And, in fact, George's new powers are a serious stumbling block in his bid for the heart of Lace Pennamin, the town's single mom newcomer (Kyra Sedgwick). Things eventually work out, as they do in Hollywood, and the chemistry between George and Lace is captured beautifully in what is perhaps the most chaste seduction scene in memory (the only comparison is in Out of Africa, when Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep's hair while reciting poetry). But at first, Lace is turned off by George's strange story and erratic behavior. The turning point in their relationship illuminates a key theme. Because of her own experience after her divorce, Lace begins to strongly identify with George as the townfolk shy away from him. Her actions are not grounded in religious dogma; rather they are grounded on her own calculus of right and wrong--"do unto others," intentionally dressed up in a nonreligious context.

Though this romantic story could have resulted in a saccharine binge, DiPego and Turteltaub thankfully do not overindulge. In fact, the film's only heavy handed moment comes during a speech by George after he has discovered that his body hasn't been taken over by aliens but by a tumor that is stimulating brain activity. A neurologist proposes to operate, but George correctly guesses that surgery will probably end his life and sends the surgeon packing with an overacted tirade about the human capacity for achievement and enlightenment.

But George's point is still well-taken. The entertaining and smart Phenomenon represents a departure from that sub-genre of science fiction that trivializes human achievements by attributing them to alien civilizations or paranormal phenomena. Later in the film, George expresses his gratitude that his adventure is the result of illness and not aliens because "it's here . . . it's in us."

Although Phenomenon's narrative unfolds as a powerful Christian allegory, the film just as soundly rejects a spiritual explanation for George's dilemma. When George first discovers the extent of his abilities, he yells at the sky in perplexed frustration: "Is somebody trying to tell me something? . . . What?" The only answer is a yawning sea of stars and the gentle rocking of trees at the edge of George's vision.

And the Golden Rule isn't the only religious text to be retooled in this secular passion play. As George is dying, he tries to salve the overwhelming grief of Lace's children. He tells them that he will always be a part of them because they've shared their lives with him. He lifts an apple and explains that, by eating it, the apple nourishes him and becomes a part of him. After some encouragement to take part in this symbolic last supper, the children voraciously devour the apple. At the second birthday gathering (after George dies), the town is celebrating not only George's memory but their kinship with each other--another example of religious ritual cast in a secular mold.

The beautiful irony of Phenomenon is that it uses Christian allegory to impart radically different messages. For example, most Christian sects believe that Christ conquered death. In Phenomenon, however, death is part of life. (After all, death did not conquer remembrance and love--George lived on in the memories of his extended family and in the work he accomplished.) Also, George's story of transformation and death breathes life into a central humanistic tenet: without outside supernatural aid, each of us possesses the ability to live and die with zest and dignity and compassion, and to live in harmony with nature and each other.

Few films take such evocative religious imagery and translate it successfully into secular symbols. Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal is a most stylistic and moving exemplar. Phenomenon is an important addition to that corpus of work and is also a thoughtful and entertaining film.

Renee H. Guillory is a political consultant who works and volunteers with progressive, nonprofit organizations in the Southwest. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Guillory, Renee H.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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