FILMS

A summer of science with humanity

Lawrence O’Toole June 24 1985
FILMS

A summer of science with humanity

Lawrence O’Toole June 24 1985

A summer of science with humanity

FILMS

Lawrence O’Toole

In recent years movie theatres have made their summer fortunes on two types of thrills—the dazzle of special effects and the rambunctiousness of adolescent life. Now, as the hot weather approaches again, a number of movies are fusing the two themes. The resulting hybrid, the science-and-humanities movie, is less dependent on state-of-theart technology and teenage inanities than its forerunners were. Starting this month with the release of D.A.R.Y.L., the story of a boy robot who grows increasingly human, Hollywood studios will be releasing six movies that marry the themes of youth and science. Said Joe Dante, director of Gremlins and the upcoming Explorers: “These movies are really science fantasy, based on the dreams we had as young people.”

With near-unknowns playing the leads, this new film type represents a mix of commercial necessity and imaginative endeavor. Hollywood moguls are clearly aware that more than half of the U.S. movie audience is in the 12-to-24 age group, but the recent glut of youththemed movies has produced an unexpected share of box office failures, including Just One of the Guys and Vision Quest. For that reason, film-makers have been hard pressed to come up with

more original ideas. But young, highpowered directors—Dante, Ron Howard (Splash), Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone) and John Hughes (The Breakfast Club)—have turned to the heart of science for their inspiration.

A time warp will take one teenager to a new world in My Science Project and another to the 1950s, where he meets his own parents, in Back to the Future. In Explorers three young boys travel to uncharted territory in their own spaceship, and in Hughes’s Weird Science two teenagers conjure up the girl of their dreams. But the ultimate youth picture may be Howard’s Cocoon, in which everyone aspires to eternal youth.

Opening this week across Canada, it features a group of senior citizens who discover a fountain of youth when they meet visiting aliens in St. Petersburg, Fla. Said Dante: “These movies seem to be returning to what the Disney movies used to be.”

Because North American audiences are easily jaded, film-makers have found themselves neces-

sarily drawn to human material. In all six films youthful imagination vaults high over the sometimes heartless creations of computer graphics and optical effects. Rather than being preoccupied with the stereotypical antics of adolescence, the young people focus on inner, more private fantasies. Said actress Ally Sheedy, who starred in the recent youth movie The Breakfast Club: “Every time there is a cycle toward destruction, people start turning back to what’s inside. One way to do that is to tell stories through kids’ eyes—they see the world as magical.” Jonathan Betuel, who wrote and directed My Science Project, says that the public is genuinely fascinated with children from the ages of 10 to 16. Said Betuel: “They are capable of both great immaturity and crystal clarity.”

The new movies, which are emotionally ingenuous and ingenious, are what is known in Hollywood as “high concept.” Hoping to offer audiences something new, each boasts a clever twist. The visiting aliens

in Cocoon offer the elders an incredible proposition. According to Betuel, in My Science Project, “all time merges into one.” And in Back to the Future the teenager who accidentally returns to 1955 and literally bumps into his parents as teenagers must quickly return to the present. When his adolescent mother develops a crush on him and threatens to break up with his father, he must arrange for his parents to stay together: if he does not, he will never be born. Said Dante: “People in this business have to be imaginative and continue to astonish. After all, movies give people the chance to pay money to live someone

else’s dreams —and kids have the best dreams.”

In Zemeckis’s words, the new films all tell “stories of fancy,” the kind created long ago without the aid of miniatures or swirls of dry ice. Although each filmmaker has used special effects liberally, they all concur that technology was of secondary importance. Said Betuel: “I had no interest in creating a special effects circus that overshadowed the story about real people in a real situation.” In the four years since Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, special effects techniques have progressed little. The little fishing boat being lifted into a spaceship in Cocoon is as effec -tive— but no more so— as the Mothership descending in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). As well, moviemakers have found ways to cut corners on the costs of special ef-

fects. In general, the new films are only moderately expensive in Hollywood terms. In fact, with a budget of $10.5 million, My Science Project costs much less than the Hollywood average of $14.5 million.

For all the similarities, the film-makers contend that the new trend is sheer coincidence. Said producer Richard Zanuck (Jaws, The Sting): “We had no idea when we were making Cocoon that it would be part of this.” For his part, Zemeckis says that he made Back to the Future not for today’s teenagers but for the baby-boom generation, the ones who are a product of the 1950s. Still, there is

an obvious trend which will be visible at least until midsummer. Said Dante: “These cycles do not run for a long time. We tend to kill them off very quickly by overload.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood is squeezing the theme for every last residual—and producing some charming, warmhearted films in the process. What is most astonishing about the child robot D.A.R.Y.L. is not that he can singlehandedly fly a U.S. Army supersonic jet but that he is able to choose between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. In Cocoon, the aliens have advanced beyond humans technologically, but, still ruled by emotions, they return to Earth for their stranded compatriots. This summer, as computers run the ticket booths in theatres, the movies will be offering audiences nothing less than a brand new humanism.