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Cocoon offers the same old summer escapism

Cocoon, Screenplay by Tom Benedek; produced by Richard F. Zanuck, David Brown, and Lili Fini Zanuck; directed by Ron Howard. Playing at the Sack Cinema 57.

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Karl Marx once said, and more recently others have been saying that movies are the opiate of the masses. Nowhere do we find these two lines of thought better demonstrated than in so-called "feel-good" movies, like Cocoon, which besides offering slick, fast-paced entertainment, also comfort us with messages of cosmic oneness with our fellow man and/or alien.

Cocoon is the biggest and most-hyped of this summer's feel-good movies, which don't differ too much from last summer's feel-good movies, except there are more of them. Ron (Opie) Howard directed Cocoon. His last project, Splash, was one of the best pictures of 1984. Cocoon is not one of the better movies of 1985, although it may become one of the most popular.

Cocoon is like Splash in many ways. Both have beautiful female aliens (Tahnee Welch here, Darryl Hannah in Splash). Both have bumbling-but-likable guys (Steve Guttenberg here, Tom Hanks in Splash). Both have a romance between the alien and the ordinary guy. Both involve a secret which society would go crazy over if it got its hands on it (a mermaid in Splash, a swimming pool of youth here).

You doubtlessly remember from high school American history how the Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon searched the New World for the fabled "swimming pool of youth" which kept the Indians so young. All he found were alligators in the Florida swamps. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and today we know that the Indians' youthful appearances was due to exercise and a proper diet, and that there is no swimming pool of youth, at least native to this planet. But, as we learn in Cocoon, there is a secret to everlasting youth on other planets. Some aliens have brought the magic pool to a St. Petersburg, Florida house where they use it to help bring their cocoon-entrapped comrades out of a 10,000-year-long hibernation.

Three adventurous old men from the nearby retirement home start taking swims in the magic pool without the aliens' knowledge, and discover that it makes them feel young again. Not only do the mystical waters heal cancer and improve eyesight, they make you horny.

Well, one thing leads to an other, and naturally the oldsters find that too much a good thing is bad. Even the wisdom of the years has not prepared them for something which can make them feel young again. Even old people can learn new tricks, we see.

Howard's visual style has improved since Splash, and there are some good characters here, but the story runs out of steam in the final third of the film. Cocoon lacks the coherence and the satisfaction of Splash. More of the Guttenberg/Welch relationship would have helped, too, as would have some better acting from Welch.

Cocoon also spins up some overt religious symbolism which isn't nearly as effective as it wants to be. Of course, Cocoon isn't the first movie to associate meetings between aliens and Earthlings with religion. But the best movies of this sort, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, project a religious aura. The religious attitude is unstated but it's strongly implied. In Coccon, the mystical allusions are explicit, but the feeling just isn't there as it is in Close Encounters and 2001.

This isn't to say Cocoon is a bad movie. It's fair summer escapism, although it doesn't meet its lofty ambitions. There are better movies around; Cocoon just fits into the "OK" category.

Dan Crean->