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On the night of his 37th birthday, George Malley is knocked to the ground by a mysterious blinding light and develops amazing mental abilities. With his new-found knowledge, George astounds everyone in town, but comes to realize that his wondrous experience has changed him and all those around him forever.
For more about Phenomenon and the Phenomenon Blu-ray release, see Phenomenon Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on July 8, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writer: Gerald Di Pego
Starring: John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker, Robert Duvall, Jeffrey DeMunn, Richard Kiley
» See full cast & crew
Phenomenon Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, July 8, 2012
In 1994 John Travolta was rescued from the Siberia of Look Who's Talking sequels when Pulp Fiction reminded everyone of the unique magnetism with which he could invest almost any character. For the next six years—that is, until Battlefield Earth put the "almost" in front of "any"—Travolta racked up one success after another, if not always financially, at least artistically. Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Primary Colors and A Civil Action were all released during this period. So was Phenomenon.
Today director Jon Turtletaub is best known for loud, dumb action fare made with his high school classmate, Nicolas Cage, namely, the National Treasure series, of which a third is rumored to be in the works, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice. A small but devoted audience also knows him as one of the creative minds behind the cult TV series Jericho. But in the early Nineties, Turtletaub's signature talent was for directing sentiment with just enough bite to keep it intriguing. He did it for the early Sandra Bullock hit, While You Were Sleeping, where the future Oscar winner played a hopeless romantic pretending to be the fiancée of an amnesiac on whom she had a secret crush. In Phenomenon, Turtletaub directed Travolta in a twist on the kind of role that had won Cliff Robertson an Oscar in Charly (1968): that of a man suddenly granted intelligence far beyond the norm (though, unlike Robertson's character, Travolta's began as an ordinary guy, rather than a mentally challenged subject of a drug trial).
But Gerald DiPego's original script for Phenomenon pulls a fast one, and not because it plays coy with the source of small town mechanic George Malley's new abilities. As the story unfolds and George's intelligence continues to grow, DiPego shifts the emphasis to George's emotional life. Unlike Robertson's Charly, George's abilities don't take him into a new world so much as drive him to burrow deeper into the world he already knows and loves. He stays in the same town, keeps the same friends and loves the same woman. Getting smarter ultimately leads George to a deeper understanding of who he has always been, so that, in the end, Phenomenon becomes less a science fiction story about an inexplicable event than a morality tale about the importance of taking a fresh look at familiar things.
George Malley (Travolta) has lived all his life in the Northern California town of Harmon, where he runs a garage and grows vegetables in his spare time. His best friend is a local farmer named Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker), and the closest person George has to family is the town physician, Doc Brunder (Robert Duvall), who delivered him. George carries a torch for a recent arrival in Harmon, Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick), a divorced mother of two young children, who makes chairs in a home workshop and sells them in the flea market attached to George's garage. But Lace wants no complications in her life and keeps pushing George away.
After a party celebrating his 37th birthday in the local bar owned by Jimmy (Michael Milhoan), George staggers out into the street and sees a bright light in the clear night sky that knocks him on the ground. In the days that follow, George is transformed. He stops sleeping, reads several books a day, learns new languages in an hour or less, beats Doc Brunder repeatedly at chess after having just learned the game, and begins constructing inventions that range from a miracle fertilizer to an automobile powered by alternative fuel. He's also able to feel the vibrations preceding earthquakes without seismic equipment, and he develops powers of telekinesis, which he eventually explains as "cooperation" between his atoms and those of the object being moved.
The essential story of Phenomenon isn't so much the source of these powers (which is partly though never fully explained), but the different effects they have on both George and those around him. George is a good-hearted soul with an intense curiosity about the world; his new abilities allow him to investigate subjects that previously he could only begin to comprehend, and he does it for nothing other than the love of exploration. "He wasn't selling anything! He didn't want anything from anybody!" says Doc Brunder, scolding a group in Jimmy's bar trying to dismiss George's accomplishments as trickery. Theirs is typical of the general reaction to George as some sort of threat, either because of superstition, conspiracy theory or, in the case of government agencies, a demonstrated ability to crack top-secret encryptions (something George unwisely does for the sheer challenge). The scene in which the government attempts to measure George's abilities would be funny enough as written, but it gains an additional comic frisson from the fact that the examiner is played by Brent Spiner, best known as Star Trek: TNG's walking computer, Mr. Data, whom one could easily imagine in George's seat.
The real story of Phenomenon plays out through George's relationships with the people who don't treat him differently once he acquires new abilities. Doc Brunder remains concerned for George's well-being, but once he gets over the shock, he still sees the same person; he even takes a child-like delight in George's telekinetic abilities, probably because he trusts the man who has them. Nate remains George's best friend, even when George's abilities as a farmer rapidly outstrip Nate's; Nate calls it "embarrassing", but there's no envy in his voice. These two are friends because they're kindred spirits, both innately generous. Indeed, George devotes his new-found skills to making a match for the shy Nate with Ella (Elisabeth Nunziato), a recent arrival from Brazil, who George senses would be an ideal soulmate. (The scenes should play as hopelessly contrived, but somehow Travolta, Whitaker and Nunziato manage to sell them.)
The most intriguing of George's "constant" relationships is with Lace Penniman. In a different film, their path toward one another, with its turns and obstacles, would be the stuff of a formulaic romantic comedy, but George's transformation also transforms the formula. It's clear these two are meant for each other, and that Lace knows it; why else would she devote so much energy to avoiding a good-looking, eligible, decent single man? The change in George forces Lace to recognize that opportunities do not wait forever—"Everything is on its way to somewhere", as George says late in the film—and she's relieved when, after a few false starts, she finds that the good man she thought she knew is still there. As for George, when the government shuts down his various projects, and a world-renowned doctor (Richard Kiley) wants to "help" him in ways that don't necessarily serve his interests, George seeks refuge with someone he knows he can trust: Lace.
As in Charly, the story of Phenomenon can't be resolved with such an aberrant and powerful intelligence left functioning in the world. What's notable about Travolta's performance and Turtletaub's direction is their refusal to wallow in sentiment at the film's conclusion. More tears have been shed at the end of It's a Wonderful Life than will ever fall before the credits roll on Phenomenon. The film exits with the same innocent dignity that is characteristic of its protagonist.
Phenomenon Blu-ray, Video Quality
The 1080p, AVC-encoded image for Phenomenon demonstrates once again that Disney is capable of producing a fine Blu-ray of a catalog title when it wants to (thus making The Color of Money an even bigger disgrace). Leaving aside the opening sequence, where the image quality suffers somewhat as a result of optically superimposed titles, the picture is natural-looking, film-like and detailed, with only occasional hints of video noise. The grain structure from the anamorphically acquired photography isn't especially obvious unless you're looking for it, but it doesn't appear to have been filtered, digitally airbrushed or otherwise tampered with, nor are there any tell-tale signs of artificial sharpening. Disney has used a BD-50 for this 123-minute film; so compression artifacts are not an issue.
The palette of Phenomenon is dominated by earth tones, particularly the rich browns of the earth and the greens of plant life. Blues, especially in clothing, are almost as frequent but in small amounts that serve to emphasize the warmer hues by way of contrast. Some of the most notable earth tones are those embodied in Lace's self-designed and hand-made chairs, which play a key role in the story. In the government facilities, cool whites and beiges dominate, because George is far from home and the environment is sterile and unfeeling. Blacks in the frequent night scenes are well-differentiated, allowing for detail to emerge even in areas of shadow. This is also the case in darkened interiors such as Jimmy's bar.
Phenomenon Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Phenomenon's theatrical 5.1 track is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1, and it's a lovely but low-key affair. Other than a minor earthquake, whose rumbles and rattles make the necessary impression, the film doesn't have any major sonic set pieces. From the opening shots, however, sounds of the country routinely populate the surrounds and eventually blend into the landscape. Since the whole point of George Malley's experience is that, to him, it's no big deal (though other people keep trying to make it one), a bombastic sound track would set the wrong tone.
One element where the quality of the original recording really shines on the Blu-ray's track, other than the crystal-clear dialogue, is the beautiful rendering of Thomas Newman's score. There is no one better than Newman at rendering a certain kind of modest but intense longing, and he does it here with increasing urgency as George's situation grows ever more untenable. The songs carefully selected by soundtrack supervisor Robbie Robertson, incuding Sheryl Crow's "Everyday Is a Winding Road" (four years before Erin Brockovich used it), Eric Clapton's "Change the World" and Aaron Neville's soulful rendition of the Van Morrison song, "Crazy Love", fill the listening space and blend seamlessly with Newman's score.
Phenomenon Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
As on Disney's 2004 DVD, the only real extra is the film's theatrical trailer (2:42), which is in standard definition and both letterboxed and windowboxed. The trailer stresses the paranormal elements of the story, although other strands are there, but less prominent.
Also included are previews for the following: The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? on Blu-ray, Castle: Season 4, ABC TV on Blu-ray and DVD and an anti-smoking PSA.
Phenomenon Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
DiPego has said that his script for Phenomenon was inspired by Zen concepts, but some critics looking for an angle hopped on the usual hobbyhorse whenever Travolta is involved and insisted that Phenomenon was derived from the tenets of Scientology. One example, cited by a writer for Entertainment Weekly, was the scene in which George doesn't swallow the sedatives he's been given in a government hospital, but hides them and uses them to drug an orderly and escape. With no hint of irony (and a quotation from Dianetics), this was linked to the well-known Scientologist view that tranquilizers are bad for you. Apparently the writer missed the dozens of other movies and TV shows containing a similar scene without the involvement of a single Scientologist; he also missed the scenes in Phenomenon where various people try to foist their religious interpretations onto George Malley, when all he wants to do is explain how things work. But that's what happens when you start with a conclusion and then go looking for evidence to support it.
Fortunately, all of that should be past and the film can be experienced on its own terms in a high-quality Blu-ray presentation. Highly recommended.
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