I had recently watched the 1980 PBS version of this, an adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, and really enjoyed it. So, seeing that there was another version, and this one with the wonderful Lukas Haas, of course I was all over that.
We open with footage of a moon jellyfish, long tendrils following its movements hypnotically, as we hear some quote about “the mind.” As this is happening, we’re hearing this nice score, which we soon find out is by Angelo Badalamenti! The jellyfish, with its tendrils, dissolves nicely into an eye with lashes. I spent many of the jellyfish sequences wondering if it was real or animated, and finally deciding that it was real—only finding out from the credits that it was animated. Nice job, guys!
So Haas as George Orr is found by his friend Mannie, played by David Straithairn. George had another overdose. He’s a drug addict, and medicates himself so that he won’t dream, because the things in his dreams come true, for good or bad. George has to go in to see a social worker now, and Mannie advises him not to talk about the dreams, that it’s “Jellyfish time, just float and drift.”
So George’s social worker is played by Lisa Bonet, who is actually quite good, if a little too seductive throughout. We start getting our tendentious futuristic sci-fi stuff in her comment “Civil liberties? I haven’t heard that one in a long time.” All of the sets are subtly “space age,” too [and on a budget, which is even better], which I always love. My favorite here are these shoes with steel arches over them [very Bad-era Michael Jackson] and these huge rubber ensembles, apparently mean to keep off the endless toxic rain. Personally, I just eat shit like this up. Also part of our socially-conscious sci-fi content are propaganda messages on the subway that talk about how important it is to keep everyone healthy, and that “You have a duty to disclose any illness—and a right to know about illness in others.” Anyway, George appears before the judge and is ordered to see a court-appointed psychologist. By now we have also noticed that the lush, dreamy Badalamenti score is wonderful, if a bit repetitive.
So George goes to see James Caan as Walter T. Haber, an “oneirologist.” Caan is up there in years now, and it’s nice to see him be all sensitive and quiet, as opposed to the tough-guy roles we always see him in. Within five minutes George is telling him that his dreams come true—dude, what happened to the jellyfish thing? He tells the story of the first time it happened, when he was 16 and his Aunt Ethel would hang around the house in states of undress, which made him uncomfortable. One night he dreamed that she had been in a car accident, and when he woke, there was no evidence of her, but a newspaper clipping that she had been in a car accident—a year before.
This is also where the first, minute but significant, diversion from the 70s version, which was [I hear] much closer to the content of the novel. In the other version, George finally grabbed her in a sexual way. She reacted with disgust—and this was the impetus behind his dream. The omission of this key bit of motivation is indicative of the way this movie—and American society in general in recent years—has moved away and tries to elide over sexual impulses that are a little sketchy and impure. Let’s just talk about the NICE stuff, okay?
So Haber sends George home with a pill that will make him sleep without dreams. He goes home, takes the pill, and falls asleep. What we see is a very nice dissolve into a jellyfish nicely [but not too closely] conformed to George’s eye. Look at it below—isn’t that a nice image? I only wish that they hadn’t repeated it twice more in the movie, until its impact becomes nil.
George goes back to Haber’s office, where he now has a super new chair. This is something that will record his brain patterns as he sleeps. Haber hypnotizes him and tells him to dream of a horse. While he’s asleep, the secretary comes in and drops something, then talks to Haber about Lady Godiva—as George is sleeping there. When George wakes, the painting in Haber’s office has changed from a picture of a mountain to one of Lady Godiva riding a white horse. Only thing is, once George changes something, to everyone else, it seems like it has always been this way. So they all think that George is crazy, and he has no way of proving otherwise. This also lets the filmmakers entirely off the hook for any storytelling integrity, because they can do anything and just claim it was from a dream. Luckily they handle their responsibility honorably.
So now on the subway there are a bunch of identical people, just shown, never explained, and I LOOOOOOVVVEE it. There are also a bunch of other subtly creepy changes in the newly-changed world, such as the chess set George plays with Mannie, and the change of the Secretary’s name from Betty to Penny, and soon to be Patty.
So back at Haber’s, George confides that his big fear is dreaming someone he loves out of existence—and this has happened before, to his special ladyfriend. By the way, he has seen Heather [Bonet] again, and she dropped that she is married, and her husband is in Europe. Anyway, Haber tells George to dream that he has a big, luxurious new institute. This is the first big moment where fans of the novel and the PBS version may go “Huh?” because this is the point of departure between the versions, in ways we’ll discuss later. When George wakes, Haber is a wildly successful author—he has turned George’s dreams into a best-seller.
SPOILERS > > >
So now we notice some of the narrative compression that was employed to cram this story into a too-short 90 minutes. Heather and George are SUDDENLY romantic, although NO traces of burgeoning attraction have been detected. This is all played off that Heather was the one from the past who he lost. Also, SUDDENLY George doesn’t like Haber, because he feels like Haber is just using him for his own profit. And Haber is suddenly threatening—which makes you understand why they wanted Caan in this role. So Heather agrees to come in and supervise a session. By the way, there’s now a horrible virus killing everyone in Europe—where, you’ll recall, Heather’s husband is.
So Heather watches the session, unable to shut up, despite repeated directions. Once she leaves, Haber contacts Hunky Security [see below—I was laughing, imagining a red button on the phone that read: “Hunky Security”] and changes George’s dreaming sessions from voluntary to compulsory.
George and Heather are now suddenly in love, and he drives her to this country house he has dreamed up for himself. They spend a blissful night of love, and then she tells him to fall asleep and dream in her arms.
The power struggle with Haber continues to escalate. One thing this version can't escape [which was also a problem with the PBS version and I suspect is a soft spot of the general idea] is that George is threatened by Haber—at one point here, he even says "I'm helpless,"—but all he has to do, any ol' time he feels like it, is dream that Haber is dead or doesn't exist. The movie simply pretends that this option isn't on the table. Anyway, it all ends up with Haber and George going mano-a-mano in the subconscious, as Haber has SUDDENLY developed a technique to harness George's dream wave to have "effective" dreams himself. It doesn't end so well for Haber, and the last thing we see is a nice world where everything seems to be okay, where George re-meets Heather [I swear it's like 50 First Dates], and it fades to white, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END
I liked it—a LOT. This is not to say that it doesn't divert greatly from the source novel and remake, to the point where it's really a total bastardization of the material, but on its own terms it works. It has a wonderful tone—it is slow and talky in the BEST sense—the performances are good, the sci-fi ideas they do include are handled well and many of the glimpses of the future world [the triplets on the subway, for example] are evocative and creepy without needing much further explanation. Lukas Haas is great, he's very mature now and really gives a wonderful performance. I like him in everything, but he's just too internal and docile to play most mainstream characters. But the main thing for me was the tone, very dreamy, slightly creepy, intelligent and consistent. The director, Philip Haas, leaves many details in the background and just expects you to notice when they change, instead of having to point this out. The jellyfish motif is nice and visually arresting [if overused], and overall it's very thoughtful and well-done. It turns out he is the director of the interesting Angels and Insects, and now I'm interested in seeing his other films.
Now for its shortcomings. As a self-contained work, the biggest problem is that it attempts to cram the story into 90 minutes—which is way too short for this—and it shows. Relationships just suddenly go bad or develop, Haber can just suddenly have effective dreams himself, and even without knowing the full story, it seems crammed. WHY did this HAVE to be 90 minutes? And if you read this site regularly at all, you know that I am the LAST person to suggest that anything be longer than it is.
As an adaptation, however, this is pretty much completely inadequate. In my What Remakes Say essay, one of the conclusions I came to, comparing films of the past with their modern remakes, is that audiences of today DO NOT like IDEAS, and a wide-ranging social consciousness has moved slowly toward individual motivations and triumphs—people are not interested in society, they're interested in THEMSELVES. Personally, I see this as inextricable with the decline in education in this country. Anyway, in the PBS version [which was overseen by author LeGuin] and in the novel, what the story is ABOUT is Haber's misguided attempt to use George's power to make the world a better place. He tells him to end racism—and ends up making everyone a uniform gray. He tells him to dream world peace—and we're united against attacking aliens. Stuff like that. It's all about how intentions to control and improve the world can go wrong, and Haber's trying to improve his own lot in life is just an interesting side issue. This is the MAJOR CONTENT of the PBS version [and, I understand, the novel], but here the emphasis is reversed, and the aspect of fixing social problems is literally only mentioned in passing. So again, the emphasis shifts away from the social and on to the personal. And in keeping with this, the movie ends with a budding romance! Because while not everyone can understand overpopulation and environmental collapse, everyone knows a little something about the ways of wuvv.
So did I mention that this version was a made-for-cable movie that played on A&E? OK, so the trailer and a making-of special are on the disc. The trailer makes it seem like this is an action-packed, sex-soaked sci-fi spectacular, and hoo-boy are people going to be disappointed when they tune in to find that it has a markedly similar tone and pace to Soderbergh's Solaris. The "making-of" is one of those things that is 7 minutes of content stretched to 30 minutes [I think—I turned it off when it became apparent that it would contain no information]. It begins with a full repeat of the trailer, THEN adds what is essentially a SECOND lengthy trailer, then we finally start seeing some talking heads. The director and actors come on and essentially re-hash the story, while giving kudos to themselves, but the thing that got me were the pounding JUNGLE DRUMS! You know those kind of drums they put in the background to make it seems like this is a pulse-pounding thriller? Yeah, those. I don't know, maybe you have to have just sat through the languid, talky film to find this as ludicrous as it is, but, yeah, it's just too bad that no one wants to see or engage in anything that might be tainted as "thoughtful."
Anyway, if you can accept that this is a total bastardization of the source material and watch it on its own terms, it's a quite nice, thoughtful sci-fi film with nice direction, a beautiful score and wonderful performances.
Yes, especially if you love pensive sci-fi. Just consider it completely separately from its source.
THE LATHE OF HEAVEN [PBS] is the earlier, acclaimed PBS adaptation that was overrseen my LeGuin herself and is much more faithful to the novel.