I totally remember seeing this move advertised in Omni [remember Omni?], and that it was a fairly big deal when it was on. It was a fairly big deal because this is a public television production, and was one of their more prominent productions of that year, meant to show you all the joy and richness that public television brings into your life. God, I so want to marry the 70s.
Anyway, immediately one [or at least me] has that feeling of being 12 and watching this public television production upstairs on the tiny TV in ones' parents bedroom, because everyone else wants to watch Dallas downstairs on the big TV. We open with this water surface that looks like space [doncha love it?], and dissolve into nuclear explosions. Then we see a guy stumbling through the postapocalyptic wasteland, and he falls down and says “yes.” Then, as the credits proceed, we learn that this is based on a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin! That gave me such a hoot—I haven’t heard that name in so long. She also served as “creative consultant” on this film, which is part of what I think makes it “important.”
Anyway, it seems that in the post-apocalyptic future, we all have silver-foil lined ducts running through our homes, not unlike in Brazil. George Orr leaves his nasty apartment building and goes to see Dr. Haber, this bearded scientist with curly hair who pretty much embodies the sci-fi 70s. It would seem that George took an overdose, and has been sent to Dr. Haber as an alternative to community service or whatever. Dr. Haber is an onanologist, as he is fond of saying, and wants to help George with his “dream problem.” It would seem that whatever George dreams comes true, and what’s more, once he wakes up it has ALWAYS been true, that is, all memory of it [in everyone but George] is erased.
Let’s have an example, in the form of what we are told was George’s first “affective” dream. It would seem that when George was but a teenager he had this Aunt in her 30s who lived with them and who would always make joking come-ons to him. So one day George grabbed her tit and tried to kiss her, at which point she slapped him. That night he dreamed that she got in a car accident. When he woke up in the morning, not only had she died in an accident, but the part about her living with them had been entirely erased. All of this, by the way, is set to this delightfully cheesy [and SO 70s sci-fi] synth soundtrack, making these spacey “meeeww, meeeeaawww” sounds every few seconds.
So Dr. Haber’s therapeutic setting consists of George lying on a couch with these clear half-spheres surrounding his head. I’m sure you can see how he’d be entirely comfortable to sleep in that. One of my favorite parts is after his first session, when George goes to see the pharmacist. George’s pharmacy priviledges have been suspended post-overdose, and he has no “pharmacy card.” George says “But I have a prescription from Dr. Haber,” so the pharmacist says “Well okay, I’ll grant you a temporary card—but DON’T ABUSE IT.” I’m sure all drug addicts wish the police would let them go with a strong admonition such as that one. “Okay, here’s some Crystal Meth… but don’t abuse it!”
So George goes to Haber for his first session. It would seem that Haber is going to hypnotize George and suggest a dream to him. We get the idea that Haber cannot be completely trusted when he puts the Spock touch on George and makes him pass out. He makes George dream about a horse, and when he awakes, the picture of a mountain on the wall is now a picture of a horse. But Haber insists that the picture has ALWAYS been a horse, really frustrating George and making him feel crazy. This happens again, and you think the whole movie is going to be about how George slowly loses his mind as after he dreams something no one remembers how it was before, but this idea is abruptly dropped and never discussed again after Haber and co. suddenly DO remember how it was before.
In here George also meets Heather, an Uhura-like African-American lawyer [with giant man-hands] who initially tells him he has no choice but to go to Haber, but then relents and tries to help him form a case. They become more and more buddy-buddy throughout the movie, until finally love blossoms.
SPOILERS > > > Haber hypnotizes George again, saying to himself “I’m going to make the whole world right!” while we, the audience, gasp, knowing that we’ve got a dangerous megalomaniac on our hands, and reflect pensively on how the best of intentions can lead to the worst results. This is SO making me think. So Haber orders George to think of a world without overpopulation [and you have to LOVE these hot-button 70s social issues!]. When he wakes, 6 billion people across the globe have been eliminated. I don’t see what the problem with that is, but George feels all bad about it. Then he is told to dream of peace on Earth, and what results is that mankind is united—against alien invaders who are attacking the moon. Then he dreams the aliens off the moon—and they come to Earth! But they’re friendly, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-type aliens, who only attack because we attack them. Drat man’s warlike nature! Why must we always fear what we don’t know?! [and etc.] Haber has to explain to the government that if we don’t attack the aliens they won’t attack us [kind of like bees], so he calls up his government contacts and says “Uh… about this alien thing…”
So Haber [who has also had George dream him a huge institute], tells George to dream an end to racism, so George makes everyone gray. But is that really the answer? Please do not watch this film lightly if you are not prepared to grapple with such provocative questions. Anyway, Haber says to the hypnotized George that “one more access and you’ll be superfluous,” and that Haber will no longer have to work through “that stupid chicken brain of his.” Now, there has been a lot of acrimony between George and Haber growing between them, and it can get a little frustrating to watch the meek George just take it, when you want to him to say to Haber, “You know, all I have to do is dream that you’re dead.” But no, George is too good and innocent and full of humanity for that.
Things start making less sense toward the end. George is given a 45 of “A Little Help from my Friends” by the mutant turtle [even aliens love the Beatles!], and dreams Heather emerging from the endless sea. We also find out that when George fell down in the postapocalyptic ruin at the beginning, he had a dream that became the rest of this movie… which would explain why everything looks fine, even though it’s supposed to be all post-apocalyptic. But during this time Haber has made it so that he, too, can have affective dreams, and he creates this huge laser light show that is supposed to represent… something or other. But George joins him in the dream, and defeats him [it’s like a really friendly version of Scanners], and at the end everything’s okay and Haber is a mental patient. Cruel motherfucking irony.
< < < SPOILERS END
Ultimately I really liked it. It was very low-budget [in that way somehow distinct to PBS], but I got into that and liked how it wasn’t afraid to focus on ideas and not worry about the visuals so much. It did kind of fall apart at the end [I read that the ending here doesn’t really convey what the end of the book is all about], and Haber turns into much more of a villain than I get the sense he was in the book, in which he is supposed to be non-villanous in any way, and purely have the best of intentions throughout.
It’s hard not to be reminded of The Butterfly Effect, which is also about trying to fix something and only screwing things up more in the process, although that one was unconcerned with social issues and was more about one person.
It seems that this was out of print for 20 years because in the original print they play the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends,” which caused copyright problems. Here the song has been replaced by another version. There is a 20-minute interview with Ursula Le Guin on the disc, and she seems like a personable woman. She said she considered this movie unfilmable because essentially nothing happens in it [not true], and that it was supposed to espouse a Taoist way of looking at the world, that is to express ‘doing by not doing.’ By contrast Haber is trying to do by direct means, and look at all the trouble he gets into. Anyway, awesome, fun, idea-packed sci-fi for the person who doesn’t need spaceships and explosions… all the time.
Yes! Especially if you like real sci-fi that concentrates more on ideas and concepts that exploding spaceships.
LATHE OF HEAVEN  is the A&E remake that is quite good, but leaves the majority of content from the book and this adaptation behind.