Cocoon is a charming science fiction fable by the underrated Ron Howard. Howard is an amiable, frequently baseball-capped figure who, in the 70's, became a familiar face through his 6 year stint as Richie in TV's Happy Days. Cocoon followed immediately after Splash! (1984), another successful fantasy. It exchanges the Tom Hanks figure featured in that film with a similar one played by Steve Guttenberg, another romantic innocent. But whereas in the earlier film Hanks had a central role, here Jack Bonner (Guttenberg) has far less prominence. This is perhaps because of Guttenberg's modest acting abilities, but principally so the narrative can focus more securely on the characters that matter the community of senior citizens facing their twilight years at the Sunny Shores Retirement Center.
Cocoon's achievement as a film is all the more remarkable when one reflects upon the scarcity of active, old people in American cinema, let alone a group of them presented so positively in a state of sexual re awakening, then led to such an upbeat conclusion. Behind this apparent optimism, however, the thoughtful viewer can still reflect on some final doubts and uncertainties.
The central circle of old people, around whom events turn, together prove a fine acting ensemble. Arthur (a still svelte Don Ameche), Ben (Selwyn Wilford Brimley) Jo (Hume Cronyn), Bernie (Walter Gilford), Alma (Jessica Tandy), Bess (Gwen Verdon) and the others are a convincing unit, squabbling, relating and facing the end of their lives with cantankerous dignity which is entirely convincing. Tandy and Cronyn were married in real life. Many of film's most poignant moments of the film spring from the relationships between these people. The quiet passing of Rose for instance, and her husband's grief by her bedside. Notable too is the wooing by former song and dance man Ameche of his new lady love, a process during which he shows no lessening of time-honed screen courtesy and assurance. During the opening of the film, Arthur and Jo's witnessing of an unsuccessful resuscitation is a stark reminder of the mortality of the principals, sadly off and on screen. Cocoon was a last hurrah for many of the elderly cast (although one or two survived advancing years to appear in the terrible Cocoon 2(1988)).
The other major character group are the Antareans. Here too a refreshing leap out of the stereotypical is taken as the aliens prove reasonable, non aggressive and forgiving perhaps characteristics inspired by Spielberg's influential and amenable ET (1982) or the religiosity of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Jack Bonner's near hysterical reaction to their initial unmasking ('If you try and eat my face off you'll be very, very sorry'), his following conversion then inevitable dalliance, are all handled with an effective lightness. Even Howard's depiction of an alien orgasm on screen as Jack romances Kitty (Tahnee Welch) without touching, in the life giving pool, is done sensitively. It is perhaps the most striking moment of its sort in Science Fiction cinema since Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973). Cocoon is a film in which sexual energy is equated closely to an amplified life force and is seen as both positive and welcome. Both young and old feel the replenishment of their passion, directly or indirectly, in connection with the cocoon tank. Here the items retrieved from the sea are settled at the bottom, somewhat ominous reminders of a life to come. The title itself is suggestive, not only of the typical dormacy of a chrysalis, but of impending rebirth such an object heralds. As the oldsters rejuvenate with the 'fountain of youth', they find new meaning and value in their lives, a belated development which even leads to the sad break up of families. The desire for life can be selfish, even when healthily expressed, and some prefer to 'stick with the hand nature has given' them.
The Antarean's recovery of their 'ground crew' is what brings them to earth. While their leader's account of them having originally lodged themselves in what was Atlantis is slightly hoary (their bases apparently having sunk during the 'first great upheaval') the film wisely seers away from too much alien hardware. Apart from the pretty device on the deck of Bonner's boat, and the splendours of the returning mother ship, very little technology is glimpsed. The Antareans are certainly strange, but lacking much hard evidence of their difference enables the audience to relate to them easily. Even their unskinning, as they emerge as their true, shining selves, is a wonderous event, a shining transfiguration with no implicit threat to humanity.
These are aliens associated with whiteness and with life, forgiving and considerate, exhibiting 'christian' values. They radiate and float like angels when emerging from human covering, and their ship takes the departing OAPs up into the light. Hollywood readily associates such light with the rewards of heaven (for other examples of the brilliance bestowed upon the departing see The Frighteners (1996) or Jacob's Ladder (1990). Substitute the pool of life for baptism, the smiling Walter (Brian Dennehy) for a prophet, and Cocoon's alien spaceship might just as easily be the Gabriel leading the faithful to paradise.
But what of the end of the film? Is it really as happy and as affirmative as it first seems? Bonner has made great play with his responsibility as a skipper in an earlier scene with Kitty. At the conclusion he might, therefore, reasonably be held to account for his loss of a cargo of elderly transportees. At least one extended family is broken up by their leaving. And Walter has to return home, his mission a failure, together with a boatload of unexpected guests. At the least the final ascension is a complex event, leaving some tensions unresolved. That Cocoon manages to hold all these elements together in a satisfying whole is one reason to seek it out. To enjoy a warm hearted family film is another.
Review by FilmFlaneur from the Internet Movie Database.