Cocoon at 30

It’s 1986 week here at MF Towers, where sometimes the present day is too grim to contemplate and we allow ourselves a period of reverie in the past. The fun kicks off with Indy Datta on today’s anniversary re-release of Cocoon.

Steve Guttenberg in Cocoon

 The film

There were two distinct flavours of alien visitation stories in mainstream American culture in the 70s and 80s (before they became, with the likes of Independence Day, largely just another pretext for spectacle). One drew its inspiration from the sphere of ufology rather than genre science fiction (which has always tended as a subculture to be hostile to the credulity of believers in phenomena like flying saucers, Area 51 and alien abduction). Whitley Streiber’s novel or memoir (controversy endures) Communion, which consolidated all the tropes of the subgenre, from the taxonomy of extra-terrestrials (“small greys” and so on) to mind-probes and anal probes, is its ne plus ultra, perfectly encapsulating its blend of conspiracism, sexual anxiety and global paranoia.

And on the other side there was, well, Steven Spielberg, whose “first contact” stories Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, while drawing on some elements of ufology, may also have been influenced by the quasi-religious impulses of Arthur C. Clarke. In works from Childhood’s End to his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke consistently linked human exposure to alien consciousness with humanity transcending the limitations of its own consciousness, although Spielberg’s own nexus of alien life and religion, from the resurrection in E.T. to Close Encounters‘ climactic rapture, is less mystical and more rooted in the Christian doctrines so central to American life. Spielberg’s first contact films are not free from dread or anxiety, but their ultimate message is that the unknown is to be welcomed rather than feared, and that our humanity is most fully expressed when we embrace it and allow ourselves to be changed by it.

Of Spielberg’s many imitators, Ron Howard is arguably the most proficient – Cocoon, his 1986 follow-up to Splash, wasn’t made under a Spielberg production banner but it may as well have been. Howard lacks the angst and darkness that are the grit in the Spielberg oyster, however; in Cocoon, this results in a film that, by the standards of 2016, is refreshingly devoid of conflict. Imagine the contemporary version of a film where the immortal inhabitants of Atlantis return to Earth thousands of years later to rescue the few they left behind, only to discover that the cocoons those few shelter in have the power to give humans eternal life, but at a terrible cost to the aliens. Imagine the sturm! Imagine, if you will, the drang!

In Cocoon, conflict eventually arrives, in rather rotely Spielbergian form, when uncomprehending authorities try to stop the film’s human and alien protagonists from reaching their goal. But for most of the time, differences are resolved, transgressions are forgiven. So when a gang of Florida retirement community residents (studio system veterans Don Ameche, and Hume Cronyn, and 50 year old stripling Wilford Brimley) are caught by alien elder Brian Dennehy breaking into the swimming pool where he keeps the cocoons of his friends, which has mysteriously acquired the powers of a fountain of youth, he agrees to let them continue using it, even though he knows this won’t end well. When boat-bum Steve Guttenberg, spying on nymphy alien hottie Tahnee Welch, discovers to his consternation that her pretty skin is some kind of Antarean rubber human suit, no harm results that will stop them kissing in the last act (they’ve already had freaky alien mind-sex by this point, to be fair). When the superannuated Huck Finn gang blow their secret and the Cocoon pool is overrun, with terrible results, Dennehy’s reaction is to let the people who ruined everything join the aliens in eternal life.

The things that are harder to forgive, in Cocoon, are more human in scale, like Hume Cronyn’s rejuvenation freshening up his roving eye, until his wife (The actor’s real life spouse Jessica Tandy) runs out of patience and kicks him to the kerb. Or Jack Gilford’s guilt and grief over his refusal to let his wife, in the final stages of dementia, use the pool until it’s too late. These subplots, beautifully performed, are the real heart of Cocoon. The Oscars, inexplicably, chose to honour instead a fairly unremarkable turn from Don Ameche (who should have won his late career Oscar for Things Change instead), whose big moment in the film (breakdancing in a nightclub FYI) was performed by an unconvincing double.

The disc

The usual decent package from Eureka. None of the extras, including a 2004 commentary by the director, is new, but it’s worth watching the EPK featurettes for the moment when Steve Guttenberg refers to dolphins as elephants. The main event is the image quality. Cocoon isn’t a particularly artful film, visually, but Don Peterman’s cinematography, rich with colour and light, is beautifully served by a flawless transfer, encoded at a very generous bit rate (the paucity of extras leaving plenty of space on the disc for the main feature). Howard’s film is no classic, but it’s rarely looked better than this.

The anniversary Blu-ray edition of Cocoon is released in the UK today by Eureka Entertainment.

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