For the USA, Ron Howard is a national treasure. For the rest of the world, he’s an absolute crowd-pleaser: films like Splash have marked him out as a master of light entertainment, while Apollo 13 had the awards klaxon calling. This success has been thanks in no small part to his level of filmmaking craft, and a sensibility for creating images that linger in pop culture. Like his contemporary Robert Zemeckis, he can take a familiar subject and breathe fresh perspective into it. In Cocoon, the question of old age is given a supernatural spin – but the 1985 film film simply lacks the storytelling chops to lift it to the classic heights it needs.
Cocoon only holds together thanks to a few tender moments.
Florida is a place known for its resting senior population: it seems to have always been the place to retire to when one reaches a certain age. As they while their days away, a small group of friends decide that they still want a little excitement in their lives; they frequently jump the fence of their retirement home and sneak into the pool of the empty house next door. Even when the property receives curious new tenants, they still want their secret pool time. One day, when they believe the owners are out, they discover large curious-looking rocks sitting at the pool’s bottom; undeterred, they swim anyway, and soon afterward they feel re-energised, almost young again. Meanwhile, a down-on-his-luck captain, Jack (an ebullient Steve Guttenberg), finds himself renting his modest boat out to a small team of researchers. At least, that’s what they say they are: he soon finds out that his new clients aren’t of this world, a realisation the trespassing seniors also make when they’re finally caught in the act. Drawing on the profound subject of growing old and the acceptance – or denial – that goes with it, Cocoon is a potentially universal movie that could – and should – draw audiences together. And at first, it probably seemed that way: it was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1985, and ever since then has endured as something of a must-see Ron Howard cut. But decades later, the cracks are sorely showing.
The many, many problems with this movie essentially stem from its influences, which after all these years are more obvious than ever, and one that is clearer than ever is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Released only 3 years after the Spielberg classic, Cocoon modulates its tone and style so crassly that it frequently dazzles, but fails to come up with any real ideas of its own. Howard is adept enough at making this stuff fly, but it adheres so closely to its green-lighting comparison piece that its own tale is left to the side. The tremendously thoughtful old-age themes, explorer with some nuance in the movie’s first hour, are forgotten in favour of an on-the-run conceit in the third act, and things get so ridiculous – so faux E.T. – that it’s difficult to stifle a giggle, especially when the aliens themselves are revealed, beings of light which have clearly been designed to look friendly but come across as utterly terrifying.
If anyone other than Howard were working on this, then such similarities to the in-vogue Spielbergian feel would have been mainlined even more. As it stands, Cocoon only holds together thanks to a few tender moments, the audacity to feature over-60s as the stars, and Howard’s rare knack for turning simple schmaltz into somewhat complex schmaltz.
Cocoon is available on Blu-ray from Eureka on July 18.