1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
“Men should be explorers, no matter how old they are. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m going.”
The late 1970s into the early 1980s was arguably the best decade of cinematic science-fiction. It was a time when a young Steven Spielberg came into his own, delivering powerhouse classics like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. It was also a time when George Lucas’ blockbuster STAR WARS franchise dominated the box office.
At the time, studios recognized the value in bringing sci-fi stories to a global audience, especially when those stories involved characters that people could relate to. In 1985, the spirit of this revelation was very much alive with a remarkable motion picture called COCOON.
The project began after producers Richard Zanuck and Lili Zanuck purchased the rights to an unpublished novel by author David Saperstein in which aliens from a distant planet come back to Earth to retrieve cocoons that they left in our planet’s ocean so they could grow strong and become an elite Army. However, pollution here on Earth has put the cocoons in jeopardy, and the aliens (disguised as human beings) work quickly to recover their endangered comrades before the cocoons are destroyed. Meanwhile, a group of senior citizens at a nearby retirement community discover the aliens and their plight, and vow to assist them in their race against time.
When the book was translated into a screenplay, some of the events were changed. The group of retirees discover the cocoons in an abandoned pool nearby, and find that swimming in the pool along with the cocoons gives them a new lease on life, imbuing them with a dormant vitality that allows them to see the world through more fresh, younger eyes.
The Zanucks brought in director Ron Howard, who – at the time – was just beginning what would become a long and illustrious career as a motion picture director. The former “Happy Days” star recognized the film’s potential, and specifically, the very basic human story that surrounded the semi-complicated narrative:
”In doing a broad comedy or a fantasy, you’ve got to earn the right to be able to do the incredible thing. You’ve got to draw people in through something they can relate to.”
To add a level of credibility to the story, Howard sought out a group of Hollywood legends to round out the film’s main cast. When the dust settled, he had organized a troupe of stars that consisted of Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Maureen Stapleton, Wilford Brimley, Gwen Verdon, Herta Ware, and Jack Gilford. For supporting roles, 80’s megastar Steve Guttenberg was cast as brash and dimwitted captain Jack Bonner, as well as stage legend Brian Dennehy as Walter – one of the aliens who is spearheading the mission of cocoon retrieval.
Filming commenced on the project in St. Petersburg, Florida, which has morbidly been dubbed “God’s Waiting Room” for its large population of seniors who settle on the seaside city to finish out their golden years. Perhaps it was an inspired choice of location, given the movie’s tone and message. However, the question remained: Could this movie hold up against other modern sci-fi classics?
COCOON was released on June 21, 1985 to an impressive $8 million opening, scoring the top slot at the weekend box office, and besting its competitor RETURN TO OZ. It would also become the 6th biggest movie of the year, taking in a cumulative total of $85 million in grosses. Commercially, it was a bona-fide hit.
Critics largely praised the film for its ability to blend a wild sci-fi tale with an emotionally charged subtext. While the special effects (for its time) were a marvel to behold, it was the story of this ordinary group of retirees that connected the most. Touching on themes of aging, and facing one’s own mortality, COCOON proved to be a masterstroke of multi-genre cinema. New York Times critic Janet Maslin championed the film as something of a big screen champion:
“In ”Splash,” Mr. Howard had no better notion of how finally to bring a daydream to earth; movies like these two can’t help but be easier to start than to conclude. But a mermaid, by virtue of her very fins, was something new. ”Cocoon” is more conventionally conceived, and despite the scale and handsomeness of the production, more slight. Still, it has no real competition as this season’s reigning fairy tale.”
COCOON would go on to earn two Academy Awards. Don Ameche took home a gold statue as Best Supporting Actor, and the Industrial Light & Magic team of Ralph McQuarrie, Ken Ralston, Scott Ferrar, and David Berry took home awards for Best Visual Effects. Although he wasn’t nominated for his work, James Horner contributed one of the best original scores in movie history.
While the film would eventually spawn a less-than-remarkable sequel, COCOON was a resounding success on all fronts, and like E.T., occupies a space in the sci-fi canon for embracing a largely “human” story.
It’s hard to imagine a film like COCOON being made this day and age. Imagine a major studio greenlighting a quiet sci-fi yarn with a main cast consisting of Hollywood elder statesmen? Could COCOON compete with the superhero fables and mindless, CGI-heavy clunkers that we see so often? The answer is probably no. It’s reasons like these that create such a longing to return to the years when Hollywood actually cared about what they were making – when quality outweighed commercial viability. But, at least we always have years like 1985 to return to.
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow:
Most Likely to Scare the Kids into quiet, quivering wrecks: