Reviewed by: Dale Mason
“Some things in life just can’t be explained.”
This unique mystery is, arguably, the best romantic drama of 1996. It is a film about relationships—deep, lifelong friendships and a tender new romance, with frequent humor balancing tension and suspense. Though exemplary in the way that the script was crafted, it also carries baggage that most Christians will prefer were not present, but which will not significantly decrease its overall audience.
“Phenomenon” opens with warm and beautiful scenes of northern California farm life, and a nearby small town. It reveals a simple but very likable mechanic, George Malley (John Travolta), a 37-year-old bachelor trying to earn a date with Lace, a pretty young mother who has recently moved to the area. George is anxious to get to know Lace, but she has sworn off men, still hurting because she was recently deserted and divorced. His persistence continues, however, and as any moviegoer would guess, he eventually “gets the girl.” (What good would a love story be if at some point the couple didn’t actually fall in love!)
In the middle of all this George gets drunk at his own birthday party and, while outside to wish a friend good night, is the solitary observer of a brilliant light which knocks him to the ground. Both George and the audience are led to believe that he has been endowed by extraterrestrials with special powers when, the next morning, he discovers himself to be an instant genius. George the simple, broad-smiling town mechanic now possesses super sharp senses, and has the uncanny ability to learn extremely complex concepts with amazing ease and incredible swiftness.
He is soon reading several books a day, learns complete languages in only minutes, can feel upcoming earthquakes long before seismology equipment can detect them, and realizes that he can partner with the energy around him to levitate small items such as pens and books (this is one example of the New Age belief system that quietly co-exists as a secondary sub-plot throughout the film). His new and expanding sense of the world even makes it possible for him to locate a dying young boy, design energy saving inventions, play matchmaker for his best friend, and more. Unfortunately, the townspeople begin to fear his “powers” and make him feel unaccepted, except for the town doctor (Robert Duvall) whose father-like love for George drives him to understand the source of George’s newfound abilities.
It is not until George sees the light a second time and falls unconscious that he learns the surprising true reason for his extraordinary knowledge and powers—a reason that has nothing to do with UFO’s or extra-terrestrials.
During his ordeal George is held by the military, pursued by academia and interrogated by the FBI. Now, with surgeons determined to use him as a human guinea pig, he escapes from his guarded hospital room and makes his way to his beloved, Lace. The film has a bittersweet ending, but is both encouraging and thought-provoking.
“Phenomenon” is, at its core, a wonderful film. It does, however, contain a couple of sensual/tender love scenes that make it inappropriate for viewing by anyone but adults, preferably married couples. The sequence where Lace confirms her love to George by giving him a shampoo and haircut will undoubtedly go down as one of the most sensual and meaningful fully-clothed haircuts in movie history!
Warning to parents: In addition to the inferred pre-marital sex and sensuous scenes described above, this story suffers from a couple dozen profanities, inferred fornication, and a quick full buttocks “mooning” near the beginning. This reviewer therefore feels that a PG-13 rating would have been more appropriate, and more accurate.