The fear of aging and the search for the Fountain of Youth has been a staple of speculative fiction for as long as humanity has been spinning tales, and has been considered in the classics of science fiction cinema from Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run to Darren Aronofsky’s aptly named The Fountain.
In 1985, future Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code director Ron Howard took these eternal themes and wove a captivating and poignant reflection on ageing and mortality with a light dusting of science fiction in Cocoon, a film which recently celebrated its own thirtieth anniversary and has now been remastered for Blu-ray release by Eureka.
Following a very successful and high-profile career as a juvenile actor throughout the 1960s and 1970s with roles in The Twilight Zone, The Waltons and Happy Days, Howard moved into directing under the guidance of producer Roger Corman and made big waves with the fantasy comedy Splash in 1984, a huge commercial success which made international stars of its leads Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.
For his next directorial outing, Howard chose the mainstream but offbeat science fiction film Cocoon which nevertheless had solid genre credentials in the form of composer James Horner and visual effects work by ILM. Given the success of Splash and the high profile of its director, there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding Cocoon which, fortunately, became a significant success resulting in two Academy Awards being awarded including Best Supporting Actor for Don Ameche, the only time he was so honoured, already in his mid-seventies.
Looking at its basic premise it would be a fairly safe bet to say that it would be unlikely to be made today, genre cinema now being marketed largely at the teen/twentysomething market rather than those later in life of more mature tastes. Opening in a Florida retirement community the story involves a trio of male septuagenarian friends, Art Selwyn, Ben Luckett and Joe Finley, who lead active lives, often sneaking into the empty property next door like a bunch of naughty schoolboys to use the swimming pool.
However, their furtive activities appear threatened by the letting of the property to a group of reclusive strangers led by the mysterious Walter (Brian Dennehy of First Blood and F/X: Murder by Illusion). These strangers have already chartered a boat owned by loveable hunk Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg of Short Circuit and Veronica Mars) to retrieve encrusted artefacts from the seafloor which they then store in the swimming pool, which the three friends continue to use furtively, soon discovering that the water seems to have gained rejuvenative properties.
This discovery, however, comes at a price: the strangers are aliens in disguise and the artefacts stored in the pool are hibernation cocoons containing members of their race, the Antareans, which had been left behind on Earth millennia before. When the friends stumble across the aliens undisguised, a rapprochement is reached and the Antareans allow the friends to continue using the pool as long as they keep quiet about what they have discovered.
Predictably, the youthful vigour of Art, Ben and Joe does not go unnoticed and their envious fellow retirees descend en masse upon the pool without consideration of the repercussions, and there are disastrous consequences for the retrieved cocoons of the helpless Antareans.
Inspired by David Saperstein’s novel of the same name, where Cocoon scores most strongly is in Howard’s choice to make the film a character-driven piece brought to life by a superb ensemble cast relegating the science fiction elements to a secondary McGuffin. The opening scenes depict frankly but respectfully the realities of life in a retirement community, but it is made clear that the affable trio who drive the story are unusually active and spirited compared to their less able fellow retirees.
Howard assembled some of the best character talent available to him at that time, several of whom, in a case of life imitating art, experienced significant career rejuvenation as a result of Cocoon’s success. Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche had been stage and screen matinee idols of the 1940s, and Wilford Brimley was a jobbing character actor who ironically was only fifty years old at the time of filming, having to be aged up to match his seventy-something colleagues.
Of the women in their lives, Gwen Verdon had been a major Broadway star of the 1960s, Maureen Stapleton was a big television name and Jessica Tandy, the wife of Hume Cronyn, was a feted stage actress. In an ironic touch, as a result of her breakout appearance in Cocoon at the age of seventy five and its sequel three years later, the semi-retired Tandy would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.
Amongst the younger cast, Brian Dennehy would break out into larger roles and two years later would play the eponymous lead in the arthouse hit The Belly of an Architect, directed by Peter Greenaway. During Cocoon‘s pre-release publicity, much was made of the stunt casting of Raquel Welch’s daughter Tahnee as the nominal romantic interest for Jack, while Tyrone Power Jr makes up the alien ensemble and Cocoon is easily the pinnacle of both their careers.
Cocoon sits firmly in the tradition of benign alien visitation films popular in the early eighties but wears its genre credentials lightly, Howard for the most part eschewing flashy light shows and pyrotechnics. What is very striking is how few visual effects the film contains, certainly by modern standards, the characters being paramount throughout.
Interestingly the mid-eighties would see a growth of popularity in films and television shows featuring senior characters, and just three months after Cocoon premiered the first episode of the long running Golden Girls aired in the USA.
Both Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy built on their joint success in Cocoon by starring together in the Steven Spielberg-produced *batteries not included in 1987, the same year Star Trek The Next Generation commenced, with the Enterprise under the command of a more senior captain than would have been acceptable on network television, before or since.
Coincidentally, one of the other residents of the retirement home was played by Herta Ware, who would have a brief role as Yvette Picard in the episode Where No one Has Gone Before during that show’s first season, while Brian Dennehy’s daughter Elizabeth would have a featured role in The Best of Both Worlds as the ambitious Borg tactical expert Lieutenant Commander Elizabeth Shelby.
Because of Cocoon‘s international success an inevitable sequel followed three years later directed by Daniel Petrie and featuring most of the original film’s cast. Unfortunately, the premise ignored Saperstein’s sequel Metamorphosis and largely undermined the themes of the original film, and is regarded as inferior in every way; in 2013 Saperstein published the conclusion of his trilogy, Butterfly: Tomorrow’s Children.
It is safe to say Cocoon could never be made today with Hollywood’s youth-obsessed demographics and, in fact, could not be made commercially at all. Back in 1985, Ron Howard had at his disposal immensely-talented senior character actors who were not afraid to look their age and who were happy to let it all hang out on camera displaying a physical frankness remarkable for a commercial Hollywood feature.
Nowadays one would be hard-pressed to find similarly-aged actors who had not resorted to cosmetic intervention and who would be happy to display their aged bodies in the way Howard’s cast does. The irony is that Cocoon is not a film about regaining one’s lost youth. Rather, it is a film about grasping the opportunities that life throws at you at any age. Cocoon deserves to be cherished as we will never see the like of it again.
The high definition transfer has been created for this release and is perfectly acceptable, considering the film manifests the softness of image so beloved of 1980s features. There is a chatty and informative commentary track by Ron Howard recorded at the end of the nineties and several short behind-the-scenes films made during production which appear to have been ported over from a DVD release, as have the various trailers and TV spots; understandably, the image quality on these is not on a par with the main feature. The accompanying booklet contains a new essay written for this release by film critic and historian James Oliver.