Save the Cat! Goes to the movies (18) Out Of The Bottle: Cocoon (1985)

COCOON (1985)

Whether asked for or not, a magical being comes into a unique world with a unique cast of characters and bestows a wish on those deserving of it. This is the definition of an “Angel Bottle” tale, and in most of these stories the one getting the gift is young (e.g., Cinderella) with his or her whole life ahead. It’s ironic that in director Ron Howard’s Cocoon the only young person is Steve Guttenberg (of Police Academy fame) and the ones who receive the gift these “angels” are offering are all over 65.

In many an “Angel Bottle,” we start with a unique (often professional) setting, the underdogs who inhabit it, and a problem that needs fixing. In The Love Bug, it’s about racecars, in Angels in the Outfield, baseball- both featuring teams that are looking to reverse their fortunes and needing a miracle to do it. In Cocoon, we establish the world of the retirement home, and meet its residents (Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, and Maureen Stapleton) facing “golden years” that aren’t so golden. Death, regret, and depression loom. Then Brian Dennehy and Tahnee Welch arrive, put some strange rocks in a nearby swimming pool, and create a “Fountain ofYouth.” By the time the Fun and Games peak, and the real issues are dealt with, there’s a choice: Stay on Earth and die the old-fashioned way… or choose “magic” and live forever.

OOTB Type: Angel Bottle

OOTB Cousins: Mary Poppins; The Love Bug; Oh, God!; *batteries not in-cluded; Short Circuit; Angels in the Outfield; Aladdin; Meet Joe Black; Bruce Almighty; Nanny McPhee


Screenplay by Tom Benedek

Story by David Saperstein

Opening Image: A telescope pointed at the stars. A little boy gazes at the moon. The boy is our bookend character.

Set-Up: A retirement home in Florida. The old folks who live here are in various states of decline; some suffer in silence, others live it up in dance class. Arthur Selwyn (Don Ameche) is the Sun City Casanova. Benjamin Luckett (Wilford Brimley), his ornery sidekick. Alma (Jessica Tandy) and Joseph Finley (Hume Cronyn) are happy lovebirds. Hume, we find out, just got bad news from a doctor. As the three men strike out to sneak into the estate next door and go swimming, their lives are pretty much at an end. Wilford’s only other bright spot is his grandson, David, the telescope owner we met up front. And seemingly unrelated to this world, we also meet Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg), a commercial boat operator. His business is bad and won’t soon change.

Catalyst: Into the lives of both Steve and the old folks come Walter (Brian Dennehy) and Kitty (Tahnee Welch). Though they appear “normal,” there’s something odd about them. They hire Steve’s boat and lease the house next door where the old men have been swimming, now off-limits to trespassers.

Debate: What are these strangers up to? Steve takes them out to sea to retrieve some strange rocks; despite Tahnee’s weird demeanor, Steve is intrigued. And what should the old men do about the restriction to their afternoon swim? After Wilford loses his license at the DMV due to poor eyesight, the guys decide to trespass and go swimming like always, saying…

Theme Stated: …”I can’t remember the last time I took a risk.” Our theme: Is it too late to take a chance in life?

Break into Two: At the pool, the three old dudes see several big rocks at the bottom of the deep end. They jump in anyway, splash around, and cavort like children. Soon they feel younger, more energetic. The pool is regenerating them.

B Story: While the B story is in many ways the love story between Steve and Tahnee, it’s also about another retirement resident, Bernard Lefkowitz (Jack Gilford). Jack is friends with the other men; his wife has Alzheimer’s. Yet he refuses to risk changing his life. Jack is a Confidant with mortal fears. His debate with the others is where the theme of this story is discussed… whereas Steve and Tahneels sex romp is there to bring a younger demographic into the movie theater!

Fun and Games: As the old men find a new lease on life, the “promise of the premise”, is revealed as basically an updated Fountain of Youth story. We now get the ironic notion of picking Florida for the setting of this film, the site of Ponce de Leon’s fabled attempt to discover just such a tourist attraction. The Fun and Games is textbook as the silver foxes become Viagra superstars. Hume’s threatening disease goes into remission, and word of the rejuvenating pool quietly spreads. We learn why the pool has powers when Steve stumbles upon Tahneeis secret. Both she and Brian are aliens! The rocks they are retrieving from the ocean and keeping in the pool are “cocoons” containing their brethren. The spacemen become friends with the old folks, frolicking in the pool with them and even playing cards.

Midpoint: At mid-movie, we have a “false victory” and the beginning of the downward slide toward “All Is Lost.” In a great revenge scene, Wilford returns to the DMV and aces the eye test. The Preparation H Squad celebrate out on the town in Wilford’s car and show the “kids” a thing or two at the local break-dance club. By now the old dears are getting a tad irritating. The magic is curdling. It’s the perfect time to discover Hume is seeing another woman in town. His “feeling good” has a downside: He’s risked losing Jessica’s love – and their marriage.

Bad Guys Close In: Hume and Jessica separate. “I’m happy you’re going to live Joe, but I’ve got to live too, ” she says.  Jack’s refusal to go swimming with the others and heal his wife has become a sticking point. His loud public revelation of the pool’s magic leads to a gray stampede as the residents rush to jump in.

All Is Lost: Brian discovers the old folks’ invasion of the pool house has cracked one of the cocoons. The alien inside has died and the life force has been drained from the water. When Jack finds his wife dead later that night and tries to revive her in the magic pool, it’s too late.

Dark Night of the Soul: Jack’s wife is taken away in an ambulance. And the cocoons have only hours to survive.

Break into Three: The only hope is to get the cocoons back in the ocean. A and B stories cross as Steve and the old folks join forces in a moment of Synthesis to help return the cocoons to the sea. As thanks, Brian offers everyone eternal life. All the humans have to do is come with him to outer space… forever.

Finale: What a dilemma! Stay or go? Wilford shares his plans with David, who takes the news hard. The race to escape includes David agreeing to let Wilford go. The alien craft lifts off with the risk-takers, as B story characters Jack and Steve stay behind.

Final Image: A “funeral” for Wilford. Bookend character David looks toward heaven. Grandpa’s up there, happy at last.


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