June 21, 1985
COCOON is directed by Ron Howard (his followup to SPLASH) and produced by Richard D. Zanuck (SUGARLAND EXPRESS, JAWS), but I bet some people assumed Spielberg had something to do with it. It opens with an Elliott-like little boy (D.A.R.Y.L. himself, Barrett Oliver) who’s up past his bedtime sneaking a look at the moon through his telescope. And then there’s a spaceship (designed by Ralph McQuarrie, like the one in E.T.) flying down over some dolphins in a scene lit much like the opening attack in JAWS. The story involves a close encounter of the third kind with friendly e.t. the extra-terrestrials, so lots of people stare up in awe at glowing alien and spaceship effects by Industrial Light and Magic. And hey, the main characters are the elderly residents of a retirement community who find a magical way to recapture their youth, much like Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE!
Best pal retirees Ben (Wilford Brimley, whose other 1984 releases were MURDER IN SPACE, REMO WILLIAMS and EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR) and Art (Don Ameche, who starred in THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL when Brimley was five years old) are residents of the Sunny Shores Villa in St. Petersberg, Florida. They’re kind of the cool rebels of the place, because while many of their peers are sitting around playing cards and shuffleboard they’re strutting out in their beach clothes that look like pajamas, squeezing through a broken gate to trespass in somebody else’s indoor swimming pool. Sneaking around like a bunch of goonies.
Note: They also bring Joe (Hume Cronyn, SHADOW OF A DOUBT) with them, but I didn’t include him as one of the cool guys just because those other two seem to be the masterminds of this whole operation. But they obviously accept Joe into their clique. Nothing against him.
Meanwhile there’s a young, charming, broke, ne’er-do-well boat-captain-for-hire named Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg, two POLICE ACADEMYs in at this point) who lucks into being hired for 27 days by a group of mysterious people led by Walter (Brian Dennehy, three years after FIRST BLOOD). The way they climb on the boat and ignore him while they closely examine the layout and set up their equipment reminds me of Simon’s crew in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE. They use high tech radar machines and maps to find and recover boulder-sized, barnacle-covered shells from the ocean floor. They’re very secretive about what they’re up to, but one tells Jack these things are very rare giant snail shells.
One day Ben and the boys are headed to the pool but see Walter and team renting out the property. Seems like the party’s over. But Ben later inspires everybody by saying “Y’know, I can’t remember the last time I took a risk” (becoming their Ferris Bueller, their Tyler Durden or their Braveheart), so they go over there anyway, and this time the pool contains three of the, you know, cocoons. They swim around them and it’s such a great experience that synthy dance music plays and there’s a diving montage.
I guess it’s possible that the pool is treated with chemicals meant to heal the cocoons, and those chemicals are giving the swimmers their newfound vigor. But I prefer to think of it as people being soaked in cocoon broth. I think I read something about that on Goop.
On the way home the three of them excitedly discuss that they have “rock hard” boners, and then they go get it on with their ladies, so the good feelings are spreading around the villa even before they start bringing everybody else to stew in the space juice. Once they do, everybody is healed of their sicknesses and has energy to go out on the town and shit. There are some downsides in that Bernie (Jack Gilford, SAVE THE TIGER) thinks it’s unnatural and won’t let his wife Rose (Herta Ware, TOP DOG, SPECIES) partake, and because it gives Joe the energy to stay out late and cheat on his wife (Jessica Tandy, THE BIRDS). It’s pretty upsetting – who would expect to have to deal with that shit at that age? Occasionally Ben will give people a chance to speak up if they have philosophical problems with unnaturally extending their lives. But most of them just have a great time with this miracle of alien technology.
To be fair, they don’t paint old age as nothing but misery. Before the pool, Bess (Gwen Verdon, THE COTTON CLUB, two episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger) leads a dance class, which is probly why she’s credited as “special music & dance coordinator.” They find earthling ways to have fun.
The combination of James Horner score and big band soundtrack gives a timeless feel to most of it, but it occasionally explodes into ‘80sness in these recaptured youth montages. In the most wonderfully ridiculous of these scenes they put on their old timey out-on-the-town clothes and go out to a club where there’s a breakdance crew holding court, and Art (played by a breaker in a latex mask, I think) busts out some crazy moves. (Unfortunately none of the breakers are credited.)
Another way you know this was made in the ‘80s is the part where Guttenberg lowers his Ray Bans to check out the one woman on the boat, Kitty (Tahnee Welch, daughter of Raquel). There’s a whole subplot about him flirting with/hitting on her, and when he drops a fire extinguisher on his foot and then hops around angrily screaming about it she gives him a foot massage. It doesn’t lead anywhere, despite what they say in PULP FICTION, but soon he realizes she’s undressing in another part of the boat and watches through a peephole!
I completely forgot that this feel-good movie for all ages 13 or older had a horny-ass scene like this, and I’m never sure how to explain the peepy/rapey aspects of ’80s movies like PORKY’S and REVENGE OF THE NERDS. Yes, attitudes about sexuality, objectification and consent have evolved since then, but it’s not like there was a ton of wacky voyeurism before then. What strikes me about this scene is that there are shots of Jack’s eye through the peephole that could almost be an allusion to the shots of Norman Bates peeping in PSYCHO. And it’s not like that scene was supposed to make you go, “Ha ha, you go, Norman, this is your lucky day!”
After spying with a mischievous smile, Jack turns away and says, “Reduced to a goddamn peeping tom now, Bonner? It’s embarrassing.” Having established that, he turns back and enjoys watching her slide her panties off.
Obviously I remembered the cocoons were aliens, but I assumed these guys were sinister government scientists, and maybe Kitty was a more sympathetic member who would become a conscientious objector. I did not remember that the boat renters were aliens in disguise, so I enjoyed the shock of Kitty suddenly pulling off her face to reveal a weird glowing alien head. That was a great surprise and presumably boner killer for Jack. It does bring up a few questions and comments:
1. Was he actually jerking it when that happened
2. That’s impressive that they made anatomically correct full body skin suits convincing enough for him to jerk it to
3. Wouldn’t it be easier for her to just leave the panties on when she shucks off the skin suit
It’s kind of a leap when Jack gets over his initial terror and accepts Walter’s arguments that he should keep working for them, but I guess we can’t underestimate the power of the boner. The seniors are also very open to hanging out with people who throw their skin into a trunk and fly around like Tinkerbell, sometimes with bathrobe.
But that’s kind of nice – it’s a warm-hearted movie that doesn’t need as much antagonism as most. Walter even agrees to let Ben and friends use the pool. The biggest trouble is when the secret gets out and too many seniors rush the pool. They straight up turn into rioters and for some reason two of them pick up one of the cocoons and start bashing it against the edge of the pool! We get to hear the line, “Put down the cocoon. I SAID PUT DOWN THE COCOON!”
There’s no way around it – the old people severely fuck this one up. These poor Antareans have been hibernating since the fall of Atlantis, and because of this some of them die – something their kind normally doesn’t even experience – and the rest have to go back in the water for 10,000 years. Now do you understand why there’s no running or horseplay allowed at the pool?
Still, Walter is nice enough to invite some of the old timers to come back to Antares with them rather than staying on earth and dying soon. It’s treated as a philosophical “if you could live forever, would you do it?” discussion rather than dealing with important questions like “Is there anything to do there?” and “What’s the food like?” and “Are we gonna be discriminated against since we don’t glow or fly or have cocoons,” etc.
The big climax is pretty contrived: they’re all taking the boat out to the ship to leave, but Ben’s grandson (Oliver) jumps on with them and they get chased by the Coast Guard. I thought it would be kind of a funny/inappropriate ending if the Coast Guard just gunned them all down, and when they say “You are endangering the lives of your passengers!” over the loudspeaker I think that’s what they’re threatening to do. Anyway, it’s weird that Ben doesn’t try to hand the kid back. Is he seriously gonna take him to Antares?
It’s weird to consider that I enjoyed this movie about aging when I was a kid, and now I’m considerably older than Howard was when he directed it. But I’m closer to his age then than that of the characters, so I’m not prepared to say his youth made him get any of it wrong.
An odd thing about the ‘80s that I think about often is that young people like me were perfectly entertained by movies and TV about the elderly. We watched COCOON, we watched Rodney Dangerfield movies, we watched George Burns movies, we watched TOUGH GUYS, and we especially watched The Golden Girls, which started this same year. I guess it wasn’t that different from us all watching Cheers even though we had no concept of going to the bar to stare into a glass of beer rather than going home after work. I’m sure it didn’t help that my family didn’t have cable, but there weren’t enough channels to micro-market everything to our demographic, so we were down with Wilford Brimley (who we didn’t realize had bleached his hair to seem older) as a movie and TV star. He wasn’t just for old people. I wonder if the world can ever be like that again?
Despite that, COCOON depicts a couple of incidents of ageism that seem over-the-top for today’s world. Clint Howard and another guy are asshole orderlies who openly refer to residents as “geezers,” which does not ring true to me, having visited many relatives in many facilities. Goofier still, when they go out dancing the younger people scoff and call one of them “Grandpa.” I think any dance floor unexpectedly visited by a couple that old, in those clothes, would erupt into utter delight and celebration. They would not have to breakdance to be accepted, though that would turn them into gods.
COCOON was written by Tom Benedek (THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO, script doctor on FREE WILLY, ZEUS AND ROXANNE [also starring Guttenberg]). I believe the credits say “story by David Saperstein” (BEYOND THE STARS, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: THE MAKING OF THE COMING OUT OF THEIR SHELLS TOUR) rather than “based on the novel by,” which makes sense because it was published after the movie was already in production. According to reviews the book has no swimming pool – they go inside weird boxes in an exercise room. Saperstein made a trilogy out of it with Metamorphosis: The Cocoon Story Continues (1988) and Butterfly: Tomorrow’s Children (2013). From what I’ve been able to gather, “The Geriatric Brigade” return to earth and have children in the second one. In the third one those kids are teenagers, secretly living at “Butterfly House” in the Cayman Islands. It would be funny if they tried to go back and make that movie now, TRON: LEGACY style. See if people get nostalgic.
COCOON was first developed by Robert Zemeckis, but when 20th Century Fox executives screened ROMANCING THE STONE they thought it sucked, and fired him. STONE went on to be a huge hit, giving Zemeckis the clout to go to Universal and direct a different sci-fi movie that came out a week after COCOON.
Though COCOON was originally planned as a Christmas release, they pushed it up six months to this highly competitive summer. Somehow it worked. It opened at #1, well above other new releases RETURN TO OZ and Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE. While the latter is really interesting as Cannon’s attempt to make a big summer release, I reviewed it just a few years ago, and don’t feel it needs a brand new review yet. But I want to mention it opening against COCOON and basically being the opposite of it. COCOON is a warm fairly family friendly PG-13 sci-fi movie about nice aliens; LIFEFORCE is a brash R-rated one with gore and sexuality. COCOON’s aliens come to Earth to collect some of their people and end up giving lifeforce to humans; LIFEFORCE’s aliens are found and brought here by astronauts, and go around sucking the lifeforce out of people. In COCOON Guttenberg tries to sneak a peek at a naked woman and therefore discovers she’s an alien; in LIFEFORCE an alien walks around the city in the form of a naked lady, clouding men’s minds so they are definitely not thinking about whether or not she’s an alien. In COCOON the aliens decide to bring some humans back to their planet so they can live forever; in LIFEFORCE the aliens leave behind some alien babies to continue fucking up the humans.
But LIFEFORCE was a disastrous flop, making back less than half its budget at theaters, while COCOON went on to make almost five times what it cost. COCOON also got good reviews and even won two Oscars. One was for Best Visual Effects, which makes sense (except it beat out RETURN TO OZ and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES). But the other was Best Supporting actor for Don Ameche! People love a comeback, huh? He’s good though. That’s pretty cool.
I have mixed feelings about whether to say COCOON holds up 35 years later. There’s definitely some humor and peeping that’s dated and/or corny. And for a supposed parable about aging I don’t think it really has much to say about the topic, or an interest in considering the issues brought up in any depth. On the other hand, the alien reveal and all the FX are cool, Howard does a good job of directing in a quasi-Spielberg style, it’s definitely a unique mix of elements (aliens and old people?), and most of all it’s a very good cast of veteran movie stars and characters actors (and Brimley) being appealing, having fun, and not being quite as broad as later age-sploitation movies like GRUMPY OLD MEN.
So I don’t think COCOON is in need of being rediscovered or anything – LIFEFORCE is still my favorite sci-fi movie released on June 21, 1985 – but I enjoyed watching it again. I rate it D.A.R.Y.L.+.
SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES:
Summer of 1985 connections:
• Oliver was also in D.A.R.Y.L., of course. Cronyn was also in BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. And when Art withdraws all his money from the bank and starts passing it out, it’s a very BREWSTER’S MILLIONSesque fantasy.
• The breakdancing scene follows RAPPIN’ in moving hip hop culture into the mainstream (by treating it as a fad)
• Guttenberg has a funny line that I think only makes sense in the context of Cold War paranoia reflected in some of the other ’85 movies. When he’s first considering keeping the aliens’ secret he justifies it by saying, “None of this is bad for America, I guess.” Related, when Bernie decides not to go to the pool he says, “I’m a citizen, I believe in this country, and I’m thinkin of blowing the whistle on the whole goddamn thing.” Worrying about the other was a patriotic duty.
• At one point they’re watching the Debbie Reynolds workout video Do It Debbie’s Way.
• There are no Rubik’s puzzles, but there’s a part where Jack uses Silly Putty to plug a gas leak and announces “In case you’re wondering, Silly Putty.” It does not seem to be a problem he encounters regularly, but he did not hesitate to pull out the plastic egg he happened to have in his pocket.
• Jack says, “May the Force be with you!” This obvious reference was also made in James Cameron’s draft of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.
Unfortunately there were no action figures. No Wilford Brimley, no swimming pool playset, no Steve Guttenberg’s boat with working peephole.
The pop song played in the night club scene is “Gravity” by Michael Sembello (the guy that did “Maniac” from FLASHDANCE). Howard directed and appeared in a crazy video for it.
• Rick Baker was hired to do the makeup effects, but decided he needed to take a break. “I came home after working on RADIOACTIVE DREAMS and Rick was waiting there, saying, ‘I’m not doing COCOON, you are,'” Greg Cannom told Cinefantastique at the time. “Two hours later I was in a meeting with Richard Zanuck and Ron Howard.” He’d worked as an assistant or makeup artist on THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, THE HOWLING and Thriller, among other things, but this put him in charge, and he did well. He went on to win Oscars for BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, MRS. DOUBTFIRE, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and VICE.
• This year Michelle Williams won an Emmy for playing Verdon in the acclaimed 8-part mini-series Fosse/Verdon, which is based on a biography of Bob Fosse but sort of treats Verdon as the hero and under-recognized contributor to his work. Though the series continues through Fosse’s death in 1987 the filmmakers were too cowardly to depict Verdon filming COCOON.
• The erectile dysfunction drug Viagra went on the market in 1998.
• Back in the VHS days, COCOON was a major movie that any video store would have and pretty much everyone had seen. Although Howard’s followup was the probly-really-racist-from-what-I’m-remembering comedy GUNG HO, that was followed by WILLOW, PARENTHOOD, and BACKDRAFT, so this was part of his launch into becoming an A-list director. And it was similar for Guttenberg’s career – within a few years he would be a part of three series’ – the first four POLICE ACADEMY movies, COCOON and its sequel, and THREE MEN AND A BABY and its sequel.
But times change and here on the 35th anniversary of COCOON it’s not an easy movie to see. Of course it’s not available with a subscription to Netflix, Hulu or Prime – almost none of the summer of ’85 movies are. But it’s not even available as a paid VOD rental. After some searching I discovered the only way to get it streaming is on demand through my cable box, but you can’t rent it, you have to pay $16.99 to “own” it. I wanted to avoid that if possible.
No problem, I’ll just order a DVD from Amazon, I’m sure it’s not—$42? For COCOON? Are you kidding me!? I considered a region B blu-ray, but it wouldn’t have come in time. So I left my neighborhood for the first time since Washington State went into lockdown three months ago and walked five miles to Scarecrow Video to rent COCOON. Viva physical media!
Otherwise, if you want to see a COCOON movie you only have its 1988 sequel COCOON: THE RETURN, which is available on Amazon, Redbox, AppleTV, Vudu, Youtube, etc. Most of the main cast returns, but not Dennehy. And Courteney Cox is in it. Directed by Daniel Petrie (FORT APACHE THE BRONX, MY NAME IS BILL W.). Not as well reviewed.
• When people do bring up COCOON these days I think it’s mainly just to joke about our shock when we realize that Brimley was only 50 years old when he made this! His old curmudgeon routine was so convincing he continued it the next year on the show Our House, again playing a retiree. So the biggest cultural impact of this movie is The Brimley/Cocoon Line, a Twitter account that marks which famous people have reached 18,530 days old, the age Wilford Brimley was on June 21, 1985. Celebrities who recently crossed the line include Jason Priestley, Jack Black, Dweezil Zappa, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and UNDER SIEGE’s Erika Eleniak.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.