Summer of 1985.
The summer of 1985 stirs a few memories for me; it was the year I graduated high school, and I was at a very different place than I am now, 35 years later; the back door of life was much further away than it seems now. So it’s not a great surprise that a movie I remember seeing in those days has a very different feel for me today; that movie is “Cocoon,” written by David Saperstein (story) & Tom Benedek (screenplay), and directed by Ron Howard (“Splash” “ “Apollo 13”). The movie was made relatively early in Ron Howard’s directing career, but it still has many of his trademarks; deeply sentimental (much like the early works of Steven Spielberg), and populated with a large cast of colorful, well-drawn characters while wearing its optimism on its sleeve.
*****AN OCEAN OF SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
My wife and I recently bought a digital projector, so I watched the film in total darkness to get as close as possible to the original theatrical experience as I could (within my means), and I saw a somewhat different movie than I remembered 35 years ago.
As a teenager, I thought “Cocoon” was a simple adventure story; a group of spry, wonderfully realized senior citizens experience a fountain of youth and ultimately go to the stars. The End. Today, as a fifty-something inching closer and closer to that Denny’s discount, I recognize that the movie is really about preparing ourselves for what lies beyond death, with a heavy dose of Judeo-Christian afterlife philosophy tossed in for good measure. For the record, I’m not a religious person, but I’m perfectly fine with suspension of disbelief. I don’t believe in “the Force” either, but I do loves me some “Star Wars.” So, without further ado, let’s go back to that summer of 1985, to a sunny retirement community in Florida…
The movie opens with a sweeping space shot of the Earth from outer space (with the moon ridiculously close; a shot reused for the TV series “Alien Nation”). Panning down to the Florida coast on a foggy evening, 10-year old David (Barret Oliver) has his telescope ready for a pending lunar eclipse, which he’s reminded of his mother Susan (“Planet of the Apes” costar Linda Harrison, whom I had a huge crush on as a boy). Something unusual is happening in conjunction with this rare astronomical event, and even the dolphins in the nearby Atlantic sense it.
The movie then cuts to David’s grandparents, Ben (Wilford Brimley, in a career-defining performance) and Mary (Maureen Stapleton), along with their geriatric friends; suave ex-naval officer Art (Oscar-winner Don Ameche) and the couples; Joe (Hume Cronyn) and Alma Finley (real-life wife Jessica Tandy), as well as Bernie Lefkowitz (Jack Gilford) and his cognitively-declining wife, Rose (Herta Ware). This senior sextet live together in a nearby retirement community and are very tight-knight; the chemistry between these actors is palpable. Ron Howard really got lucky with this cast of virtual legends. Of this prestigious group of sixty and seventy-somethings, actor Wilford Brimley was only about 50 or so at the time, but his curmudgeonly Ben was aged just enough to fit right in with the others. We see the group go grocery shopping together in Ben’s Cadillac, as they generally look out for other, along with other seniors at the home, including “Pops” (Charles Lampkin), who enjoys a Hostess cupcake or two.
Three of the seniors, Ben, Joe and Art, have a little secret; they’ve been sneaking off the grounds of their retirement home and into the indoor swimming pool of a luxurious but poorly-guarded summer rental home nearby. Ben is a gruff old bear of a man with failing eyesight, Joe is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, and widower Art is contemplating a relationship with a senior-aged dance instructor at their facility named Bess (Gwen Verdon). We get to know each of these characters very well in their mischievous trek to the forbidden pool, and each of them are thoroughly lovable. A credit to both the actors and director Howard for creating lightning in a bottle.
We next meet down-on-his-luck boat tour guide, Jack Bonner (“Police Academy” star Steve Guttenberg). Jack has just been screwed out of half his fee by unhappy customers, and is in danger of losing his berth at the dock when he is approached by a group of dapper, well-dressed strangers who offer to rent Jack’s boat for an entire month. The group consists of middle-aged “Walter” (the recently passed Brian Dennehy), bearded academic-looking “Doc” (Mike Nomad), handsome “Pilsbury” (Tyrone Power Jr., son of the Tyrone Power) and the beautiful “Kitty” (Tahnee Welch, daughter of Raquel Welch). This elegant, mysterious group identify themselves as vacationing ‘cousins’ who have very detailed maps of the ocean floor. The maps contain very specific coordinates for Capt. Jack to follow. Jack, eager for the large influx of cash from the group, asks no questions and sets a course…
At the oceanic coordinates, the group unpacks some unusual hi-tech seismic detection equipment they brought aboard that seems to attract the attention of a local dolphin pod, which react in an almost welcoming manner to the presence of these ‘cousins.’ Donning scuba gear, the four cousins then swim to the ocean floor (amidst some mysterious ancient ruins) and retrieve several giant, barnacle-encrusted ‘cocoons.’ Jack’s curiosity is roused, as as his attraction to the enigmatic Kitty, who gently brushes off Jack’s adolescent advances. When asked what it is that that she and her cousins have brought aboard his boat, she tells him they are “giant sea snails.” Unconvinced, Jack nevertheless looks the other way in favor of both the money as well as his emerging fondness for Kitty.
The ‘cousins’ keep their recovered ‘sea snails’ at the bottom of their summer rental home’s pool (yes, the same pool) and head back out to sea to retrieve a few more. Of course, Ben, Joe and Art once again sneak back into the unguarded indoor pool house for another swim. They see the giant, barnacled pods lying on the pool floor, and speculate about what they could be (Ben assumes they were used for off-shore drug smuggling, of course). Unperturbed, the trio enjoy a nice swim nevertheless. However, something curious happens during their swim…each of them feels especially rejuvenated. Doing all sorts of diving stunts, the three seniors feel like kids again. Upon leaving the pool and heading back to the retirement center, the guys admit they’re each sporting newfound erections as well. “A cat couldn’t scratch it,” quips the wonderfully foul-mouthed Ben. Returning home, Ben and Joe each give their wives a night to remember, as Art brings a bouquet of flowers to Bess, serenading her into an “Enchanted Evening” of romance. The newly re-energized elders even go out for a night of ballroom dancing later on. Something is definitely, er, ‘up’ with the water in that pool…
Note: Even as a callow teenager, I immediately recognized that “Cocoon” was a pop sci-fi updating of the Ponce de Leon “Fountain of Youth” legend. It’s no coincidence the movie is set in Florida, the home state of St. Augustine; the ancient Floridian city which was purportedly the site that spawned much of the Fountain story’s lore.
One night, during another run to retrieve more of the ‘snails’ from the floor of the ocean, Jack says goodnight to Kitty, who retreats to her cabin aboard the boat. In a deeply disturbing post-MeToo moment, Jack spies on Kitty through a peephole as she takes off her clothes… her clothes are soon followed by her skin, which she peels off, revealing a golden, glowing extraterrestrial form underneath! Jack screams, panics and jumps off of his own boat into the nocturnal waters of the Atlantic. Walter and the others urge Jack to calm down, as they toss him a life ring, which he reluctantly accepts.
Once back aboard, the shivering, soaked Jack agrees to sit down and let Walter explain; he and his ‘cousins’ are extraterrestrial “Antareans” who set up an outpost on Earth thousands of years ago. The outpost was part of the legendary lost content of Atlantis, which sunk to the ocean floor. The pods that Walter and the others have been retrieving contain the remaining ‘ground crew’ who were forced to stay behind when Walter and the others fled for home, thousands of years earlier. Now, Walter and his crew have returned to retrieve them. The ground crew have slept for thousands of years in a suspended state within their cocoons. Realizing that Walter and the others have no sinister motives (“Face eating, Jack?”), the good-hearted tour guide offers to help the benevolent Antareans in any way that he can.
Meanwhile, Joe, Ben and Art convince their ladies to join them for a rejuvenating swim at Walter’s pool house. Thanks to the pool water’s powers, Joe learns that his cancer is in full remission, and so the sneaky seniors are off for another dip. Soon they are all whooping it up, swimming around the large cocoons on the pool floor… save for the timid Bernie who refuses to join in. With the sourpuss Bernie as lookout, he sees Walter and the others returning at the nearby dock, and yells to his friends to get out of the water. Hiding in the pool house’s changing room, the seniors are in for a hell of a surprise when Jack removes a human-skinned glove and dips his golden, glowing arm into the pool water. As the other three aliens shed their false human skins, the terrified seniors react as Jack did earlier, beating a hurried retreat back to the retirement home…
Back at the home, the frightened babbling seniors are mercilessly teased by a pair of surly orderlies, Lou (Jorge Gil) and Rico (Clint Howard, brother of director Ron, and a former child star), who don’t believe the elders’ account of skin-shedding extraterrestrials residing at the nearby summer rental. Joe’s wife Alma, furious at the orderlies’ dismissal of their story, demands the two orderlies “call the goddamned police!”
The following morning, the ever-dapper Walter easily assuages the investigating policeman’s concerns by seeming as ‘normal’ as possible, generously assuring the cop he won’t even press charges against the mischievous seniors, so long as they agree not to return. Without the use of the pool, the group soon begins to feel their ages again, and Joe’s cancer returns with a vengeance. With their need of the pool’s restorative properties overriding their fear of the Antareans, Ben volunteers to speak to Walter on the group’s behalf in order to negotiate for use of the pool. The pool’s rejuvenating powers are meant to revive the Antarean crew in the cocoons, so there’s a limit on how much energy the pool can impart to others. But, in an act of compassion and empathy (especially for the dying Joe), Walter reluctantly agrees to let the seniors use the pool only on the condition that they don’t tell anyone else about it. Hat in hand, a grateful Ben humbly thanks Walter, and leaves.
Of course the cat is out of the bag in no time, as the seniors begin to show off their newfound vigor, as they go cruising, break-dancing (Don Ameche’s stunt double, at least) and other rites of youth. Unfortunately, the rejuvenated Joe falls back into some of his bad habits, including a roving eye, which leads to an affair with a server at a local ice cream parlor. A humiliated Alma, who stuck with Joe throughout his cancer and remission, refuses to be made a fool of, and leaves Joe to room with a sympathetic Bess.
As Jack grows ever closer to Kitty (despite her alien origin), they go for a skinny-dip together in the pool, where she introduces the amorous Earthling to the Antarean’s preferred method of displaying ‘affection’; her glowing, translucent body fires off a globe of energy which zooms about the pool house before striking Jack square in is chest, leaving him with a decidedly goofy o-face. It’s a cute scene that could’ve just as easily wound up on the cutting room floor.
Over a contentious lunch in the retirement home’s common area the following day, Bernie refuses to take his increasingly frail wife Rose for a restorative swim in this newfound fountain of youth, shaming his friends for refusing to act their ages. Bernie’s disagreement with Joe gets particularly heated, as Joe threatens to pummel the aged Bernie, knocking out an orderly instead! It seems the pool is also restoring youthful hotheadedness as well.
The other seniors at the center, including the cupcake-loving Pops, begin to realize that Ben, Joe and Art are keeping a secret. Pops and the others demand to know what’s up, and soon discover the pool for themselves. Before long, all of the seniors from the center are at the pool house, splashing and playing in the water, completely ignoring the return of Walter and his fellow Antareans, who screams at the errant seniors to get out of his pool! Reluctantly, the embarrassed elders leave, and Walter realizes that the pool has been completely drained of its restorative powers.
Hurriedly opening one of the cocoons, Walter tears up in grief as a shriveled fellow Antarean looks pleadingly into his eyes before quietly passing into oblivion. Walter experiences the pain of loss for the first time in his long lifespan, as he is forced to witness the emaciated death of one of his comrades. Only now does the virtually immortal Walter finally understand the desperation of short-lived humans. Walter chooses to leave the remaining cocoons closed in the hope that their occupants might be revived someday, even though a spacecraft will be returning very soon to take them back to Antarea.
Later that night, we see Bernie and Rose in their bedroom. Rose, in a rare moment of lucidity, vividly recounts the day she decided to take a chance on dating a young Bernie, who’d once stolen a sweater for her. Bernie is only half-listening to her story, as he dutifully prepares her battery of medications before bedtime Returning from the bathroom, he finds Rose motionless on the bed. Realizing she’s quietly passed away, Bernie is struck with overwhelming, desperate grief. The newfound widower carries his wife’s lifeless body to Walter’s pool house in a desperate hope to revive her. The pool, drained of its power, is now useless. Walter empathizes with Bernie’s grief, having just lost a friend himself, but there is nothing he can do.
Note: When I first saw “Cocoon” as an 18-year old, I was, of course, moved by Jack Gilford’s heartfelt performance as the widower Bernie. But 35 years later, I relate to Bernie’s plight with even greater empathy. Having been happily married for the last 21 of those intervening 35 years, the scene where Bernie loses Rose is far harder for me to watch now. It was a real gut punch.
Given his prior rapport with Walter, a penitent Ben once again returns to the summer house to beg for the Antarean’s forgiveness on behalf of all the seniors who abused the privileges of the pool. Walter’s earlier anger has subsided into melancholy, as he realizes he doesn’t have time to return the remaining stasis cocoons back to the ocean for safekeeping, since his fellow Antareans will be returning the following night to take them home. Ben impulsively volunteers his group of seniors to give Walter and his group a hand in placing the cocoons back into the Atlantic. Taking quick scuba lessons from Jack on his boat, the elderly humans work in tandem with the Antareans in order to return the pods to the ocean floor. A future mission from Antares can return someday and attempt to revive the ground crew once again. Grateful for their help and impressed with their progress, Walter makes Ben’s group an offer to return with them to Antares when their mothership returns the following night. Walter promises the oldsters a productive, immortal future, free from pain and disease, “You’d be students, of course, but you’d also be our teachers as well.”
Note: With this latest rewatch, I was struck by something I’d never really noticed before; the “Antareans” are essentially angels, offering humans an immortal ‘afterlife.’ The Antarean’s “Fountain of Youth” swimming pool reminded me now of the famed river of Jordan, where Jesus was met by John the Baptist with the promise of eternal life. The decision the seniors face with Walter’s offer to return with him to the stars requires a leap of faith; to believe in an idyllic ‘afterlife’ in outer space (heaven, for all intent and purposes) or surrender to oblivion. Mind you, I’m not a religious person myself, but that’s the analogy I took from this latest viewing.
We then see the seniors preparing for liftoff with the Antareans, as they settle their Earthly affairs. Big-hearted Art closes out his bank account, and gives all the money away in $100 bills to random strangers on the street. A truly remorseful Joe seeks to make amends with Alma, from whom he begs forgiveness. Explaining the Antareans’ offer of immortality, Joe tells Alma that immortality without her would be meaningless, and that he’d prefer his cancer take him in six months instead. Alma takes her unfaithful but repentant husband back.
Next up, we see Ben and his tearful wife Mary speaking with their 30-something daughter Susan and their grandson David. Unaware of the Antareans or their offer, Susan is perplexed by her mother’s unexpectedly emotional goodbye and becomes worried. It’s only when Ben is alone fishing with David that he tells the boy the truth about the Antarean offer, though he doesn’t give too many specifics. Ben tells David that he and his grandma are “going away” (a sci-fi reworking of the typical speech dying elders usually give to their loved ones), and that he’ll miss David very much. Young David is torn, since he doesn’t connect well with kids his own age; he prefers hanging around with his grandparents and their friends. Ben reassures the boy that his grandparents will be happy and immortal up in “outer space.”
Note: Ben’s ‘death speech’ to young David makes explicit the movie’s metaphor of the Antareans as guardian angels who are coming to whisk Ben’s group on to an idyllic afterlife in outer space (i.e. heaven). Ben makes that metaphor even clearer to David (and by extension the audience) by explaining that once in space, he and Mary will “never grow old, and we’re never gonna die.” This is the promise of eternal life we see in many religions. We can also assume that Ben and Mary don’t tell their daughter Susan since she represents the ‘nonbelievers’ (secularists, such as myself) who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) make that same leap of faith that the younger, less cynical David can. Susan would assume that her parents were delusional somehow.
With their Earthly affairs in order, the seniors sneak off the grounds of their retirement home and arrive at the dock to board Jack’s boat for their oceanic rendezvous. All of the seniors are leaving for Antarea, save for new widower Bernie, who has elected to remain on Earth. With no resentment or jealousy, Bernie wishes his friends well and walks away. Meanwhile, a visibly upset Susan is worried about her parent’s strange behavior earlier, and asks her son David to come clean. Susan and David then go to speak to the lazy, disinterested orderly Rico at the retirement home, who is shocked to learn that the seniors placed pillows under their blankets and have fled. Rico then alerts the authorities, throwing an obstacle into the seniors’ plan. With the Coast Guard and even the FBI involved in this suspected ‘kidnapping’, the seniors aboard Jack’s boat are now racing against the clock to make their rendezvous with the alien’s returning mothership. Further complicating matters, David jumps into the water in a desperate attempt to join his grandparents. He is soon rescued by the pursuing Coast Guard vessel, but manages to say his final farewells to his grand folks.
Note: The film’s composer, the late James Horner (“Braveheart” “Titanic” “ALIENS”) once again borrows heavily from his own soundtrack for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” during the chase between Jack’s vessel and the Coast Guard ship; sharp-eared listeners might recognize the exact music cues from when Mr. Spock is repairing the Enterprise’s radioactive warp core. He also rejiggers cues from “The Search For Spock” for other scenes as well. Horner was a talented, Oscar-winning composer, but he wasn’t above reusing many beats and cues from his earlier works, just as he took remixed cues from “Braveheart” into “Bicentennial Man.”
A thick, sudden fog on the water heralds the arrival of the Antarean mothership. Aboard the fleeing boat, Walter and his fellow Antareans give Jack a large wad of cash to compensate him for the loss of his boat, which will be tractor-beamed aboard the Antarean spaceship. Jack says his goodbyes to Kitty, and jumps overboard with a life raft, shouting back to his alien friends, “May the force be with you!”
Note: Here’s hoping poor Jack held onto that wad of cash when he jumped into the ocean…
The mothership’s thickening fog layer during its descent reduces visibility to that of soup for the pursuing Coast Guard ship, which is forced to break off its pursuit.
Note: If I have one nagging complaint about the production design of this film (credited to Star Trek III’s Jack Collis), it is that the Antarean mothership is a too-literal ‘homage’ (polite-speak for ripoff) of the alien mothership from 1977’s iconic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. This bugged me even back when I first saw the film theatrically in 1985…
With the fog covering their escape, the Antareans along with their newfound group of eager, elderly Earthly astronauts, are taken aboard the mothership in a very literal ‘ascent into heaven.’ We even see the seniors staring ‘into the light’ that will take them into both infinity and immortality. Once again, the film’s religious metaphors about embracing the afterlife were far more noticeable for me this time around.
The following scene is of a beachside funeral for all those seniors who were presumed “lost at sea” in the mysterious ‘boating accident.’ We see Susan grieving for the loss of her parents, but her son David is curiously dry-eyed, as he looks off towards the sky with an enigmatic smile. The final shot of the film is of the Antarean mothership making its way towards a warm, glowing nebula…
A Tragic 1997 Parallel.
In March of 1997, the “Heaven’s Gate” suicide cult tragically saw a group of people based in San Diego follow their deranged leader Marshall Applewhite into death by drinking poison, under Applewhite’s ‘promise’ that their ascending souls would rendezvous with Comet Hale-Bopp, which was passing visibly through our solar system at the time.
It’s common knowledge that the cult was inspired by 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which premiered a few years after the cult’s formation in 1974, but one wonders if the Hale-Bopp ‘rendezvous’ idea was even more directly inspired by “Cocoon” as well? I have to admit; watching the finale of “Cocoon” in that context is a bit disturbing today. The final scenes of “Cocoon”, with a boatful of seniors rising towards their alien encounter, makes one wonder if that’s what the Heaven’s Gate cultists hoped to find…
35 Years of Cocooning.
35 years later, “Cocoon” still brings warm memories for me of summer, swimming, and the ocean. It’s probably not a coincidence that two of the producers, David Brown and Richard Zanuck were also producers of that other well-reputed, Oscar-winning summer movie, “Jaws”. Director (and former child star) Ron Howard, who is also drawn to aquatic adventures (1984’s “Splash” and 2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”), really found his footing in this film, deftly balancing a large colorful ensemble of characters (a Ron Howard trademark) with sentiment, adventure, comedy and even unexpected religious subtext which, 35 years later, doesn’t seem so terribly subtextual anymore.
Director Howard did not return for “Cocoon: The Return” three years later, and frankly, neither did I. I felt the original movie more than did the job, and I couldn’t really see or even care where a sequel might go. The first movie ends with a metaphor for the ‘great beyond’, which would be undermined when you start examining that great beyond a bit too closely. Someday, if boredom strikes particularly hard, I might give it a chance. From what I’ve seen of it, it feels much more literal than its more ethereal predecessor.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 131,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. “Cocoon” is available on DVD/BluRay via safe-distance purchase & delivery from Amazon.com.