Written by Tom Benedek
Directed by Ron Howard
Steven Spielberg’s E.T. has a profound influence on the 1980s and created a subgenre where family, fantasy, and science fiction merged. These were humanist movies, without threatening antagonists or, in some instances, no real villain at all. The common factor in all the pictures was characters experiencing contact with some fantastical entities, typically alien, evoking a sense of child-like wonder in them and leading to the resolution of interpersonal issues. Of the E.T.-inspired movies, Cocoon is one of the better pictures because it keeps the story character-centered and allows the science fiction elements to enhance that narrative.
Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg) is a charter boat captain on the verge of losing everything. His life begins to turn around when a strange group of people pays him to use his ship for the next twenty-seven days. They have precise coordinates to go to far out in the Atlantic Ocean, where they begin retrieving strange rock-like objects. These structures are deposited in the swimming pool of a seemingly unoccupied house next door to a retirement home. Three of the home’s residents (Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley) trespass to go for a dip, and something happens to them that reinvigorates the trio. Their wives and girlfriend are quite happy about the new burst of energy and even partake in a swim themselves. But the strange people return and begin to reveal the fantastic truth behind what has brought new life to these elderly people, and they offer them a life-changing choice.
My first feelings watching the picture were that it feels like we are given two separate paths for the first half of the movie. It seems like you had a script about a boat captain falling in love with a strange woman while she and her associates recover aliens from the ocean. Then you have a script about old people discovering an alien-powered fountain of youth. The plots unfold apart from each other that it can be a bit annoying trying to know what the audience is supposed to be engaged with. The story of the elderly people is much more compelling than what’s going on with Guttenberg’s character. The older actors are more skilled and charming.
The elders are marginalized by the outside world, which is one of the big themes alongside mortality. They have been sent off to fade away in the retirement home and lose all the desires that made them human. The encounter with the energy in the pool reminds them of what it is like to feel passionate. I appreciate that the screenwriter explored the extremes of that by having one of the old men cross the line in a flirtation with another woman who creates a schism with his wife (Jessica Tandy).
I think the script could have used some tightening up and streamlining, but it is a surprisingly gentle movie. Made today, I suspect the film would lean into the sex humor more in a way that mocks the elders for getting frisky. Cocoon treats that element as endearing but not as comical that these humans would want to rediscover intimacy with each other. The standout cast member is Don Ameche, who experienced a revival to his long career after this film and Trading Places. Cocoon won Ameche an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The special effects are pretty impressive for the time, the finale’s ascension sequence still looks good, with the boat being lifted out of the water and the people moving around on the deck. You can tell it is an effect, but the line between the filmed live action and what was done with computers/practical effects is very seamless. Alongside that is a pretty iconic score by the late James Horner; his main theme for the film is all those things we love about John Williams’s work in Spielberg movies but with Horner’s own touches. The score was used in the trailers for J.J. Abrams’ 1980s pastiche Super 8 and just evokes a sense of the films of that decade. Cocoon is certainly not perfect, but it is a type of movie that simply doesn’t get made anymore. It’s a positive but not saccharine story about people and their hopes and dreams.