When I first saw Ron Howard’s Cocoon in the late-1980s I was a boy drawn to it by the promise of luminescent aliens and a big flying saucer; the theme of the elderly facing mortality didn’t cross my mind. Fast-forward over three decades and Cocoon speaks to me on a whole other level, although I’m not exactly over-the-hill, which made this recent revisit an enjoyable rediscovery.
Cocoon has a bizarre story arc when you think about it, but the setup is goofy and simple. A small group of aliens in human form, led by Walter (Brian Dennehy), charter a boat from struggling captain Jack (Steve Guttenberg). They have 27 days to retrieve many enormous cocoons from the Atlantic ocean floor, just off the coast of Florida, which they keep in the swimming pool of a local property they’ve purchased. However, unbeknownst to the aliens, a trio of mischievous geriatrics—Ben (Wilford Brimley), Arthur (Don Ameche), and Joe (Hume Cronyn)—use their pool in secret, soon realising the water has rejuvenating properties that transform their lives. If that doesn’t sound too crazy, I’m intentionally avoiding the backstory about these ‘Antareans’ founding the Lost City of Atlantis 10,000 years ago, and everything the final sequence where the old folks decide living amongst the stars beats dying in a retirement home.
This was a movie I remembered chunks of, but haven’t seen since the days it was being shown on early-’90s television. Indeed, you don’t really hear anyone talk about Cocoon these days, probably because it’s one of those sci-fi movies that fell between two stools—not cool enough for ’80s kids weaned on the thrills of Star Wars, or intellectually vigorous enough for middle-aged people expecting Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It probably played best with the older generation, at a time when Spielbergian cinema was at its peak and scripts like *batteries not included were getting made (another sci-fi tale full of pensioners, produced by Spielberg and released two years later).
Ron Howard had made another fantasy with aquatic roots in 1984, mermaid comedy Splash, and Cocoon was only his second major motion picture. It’s clear he was following the Spielberg playbook here, intentionally or not, in terms of tone and visuals. But perhaps that’s to be expected in a decade when Spielberg’s influence was so keenly felt in pop culture—even his Twilight Zone Movie vignette “Kick the Can” seemed to pre-empt Cocoon in 1982, likewise concerning aged people recapturing their youth.
Still, for all its clear influences and similarities, Cocoon has aged surprisingly well and it’s notable how few movies we get like this nowadays. It’s hard to imagine a studio bankrolling a sci-fi drama, primarily starring actors in their 60s and 70s, with minimal visual effects, no action sequences, benevolent aliens, and a two-hour runtime that focuses on a story that best speaks to audiences way beyond the 18–45 demographic.
Don Ameche won a Best Supporting Actor for his role here, and it’s certainly in the performances that Cocoon makes its mark. I’ve matured enough to see the power and beauty of the idea behind this film, of ‘old farts’ with one foot in the grave being granted a second chance thanks to the energy swimming amongst these alien cocoons brings them. And it’s very entertaining to see fine character actors like Brimley, Ameche, Cronyn and Jack Gilford go from fuddy-duddies to fun-loving partygoers — out on the town till late, breakdancing in clubs, winning bowling trophies, and getting their libidos back in the pre-Viagra days. Cocoon is less a film about space aliens than about the ‘fountain of youth’ myth, and the pros and cons involved if you partake, which is why it’s easier to appreciate this film the further away from childhood you get.
Indeed, I was struck by how little Steve Guttenberg is involved in the meat of the story, having always perceived him as having the largest role. He’s really just the affable guy who gives the aliens a means to retrieve their underwater quarry, before discovering the truth after spying on alien Kitty (Tahnee Welch, daughter of Raquel) taking her clothes off, together with her human skin—well, it was the ’80s, where peeping toms were an odd occurrence in so many films. The majority of the story actually belongs to the old guard, and they’re excellent. Despite being young when I first saw Cocoon, I always loved the touching moments between Wilford Brimley’s grandpa and his grandson David (prodigious child star Barrett Oliver)—only now, it was less about imagining losing your grandparents, but about having to choose life over never seeing your grandchildren again.
Cocoon’s new 30th anniversary Blu-ray, from Eureka Entertainment Ltd, is available to buy from 18 July in the UK.
- New high-definition transfer of the film.
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
- Feature-length audio commentary with Director Ron Howard.
- Five featurettes: Behind the scenes, Ron Howard profile, Underwater training, Actors, Creating Antareans.
- Three TV spots.
- Original theatrical trailer.
- Teaser Trailer.
- Cocoon: The Return theatrical trailer.
- Collectors booklet featuring a new article on the film by critic James Oliver, and archival imagery.
Cast & Crewdirector: Ron Howard.
writer: Tom Benedek (based on the novel 'Cocoon' by David Saperstein).
starring: Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Brian Dennehy, Jack Gilford, Steve Guttenberg, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, Herta Ware & Tahnee Welch.