The Phenomenon which is John Travolta
Whilst some movies delve deep into their pockets to entertain audiences with an all star cast or stunning special effects, "Phenomenon" starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall goes back to basics by entertaining audiences with a touching and exceptionally well crafted story which although not overly dramatic is still beautiful in its simplicity. That is not to say "Phenomenon" does not have its share of well known actors and a few special effects, but rather than let them become the focus, the story remains the most important part of the movie.
George Malley (John Travolta - Broken Arrow), a happy go lucky garage mechanic, is in the midst of celebrating his birthday when he is strangely knocked unconscious by a blinding light in the night sky. When he comes to he seems to have gained a sudden intelligence which over the following days and months blossoms, as he comes up with new inventions and ideas whilst craving knowledge. But this sudden burst of intelligence frightens his friends and the folks in his small Californian home town, so much so that they become hostile towards the town's new genius. His only support comes from his long term friends Doc Brunder (Robert Duvall - Days of Thunder), farmer Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker - Blown Away) and recently divorcee Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgwick - Murder in the First), who he has deep feelings for.
To be honest, the first time I watched "Phenomenon" I totally missed the point of the movie and felt a little disappointed by the gentle almost meandering storyline and understated performances from the likes of John Travolta and Robert Duvall. But on second viewing "Phenomenon" became much more and I appreciated not only the understated performances but the beautiful storyline.
Whilst the storyline to "Phenomenon" may have grounding in the realms of fantasy with the main character of George suddenly gaining exceptional intelligence and telekinetic abilities the main emphasis of the story is not on this extraordinary happening but on the way George as well as his friends react to his sudden found genius. Along the way "Phenomenon" provides some amusing but delightful scenes as we watch George's intelligence grow, such as his sudden ability to speak another language, but these are done in what could be termed as a gentle and very fitting manner which does not spoil this delightful drama.
As I mentioned, the real emphasis of the plot is on the reactions to George's sudden burst of intelligence, and again these have been done so that whilst pointing out that George is suddenly treated like a freak, they are not done in either a too hard hitting or overly light manner, making them fit perfectly into the atmosphere set in the movie. In fact the change in George's character from his initial joy at suddenly becoming amazingly intelligent, to one of despair as he is shunned by his friends and prodded by scientists, is not only brilliantly acted but really helps demonstrate the point of "Phenomenon". Add to this a somewhat surprising yet touching twist, which although succeeds in pushing the audiences buttons to get the desired emotional reaction, does not feel overly contrived and fits perfectly within the drama.
Whilst John Travolta is best known for his performances in the likes of "Grease" and "Pulp Fiction" his touching performance as a man who becomes treated like a freak ranks right up there amongst his best. Not because he fills the screen with a large, dynamic performance but because it is powerful whilst being understated. Yes we get a lot of his trademarks, from his charming smile and what seems to be an almost obligatory dance scene, one which actually takes the mickey out this trademark, but for once you do not feel like you are watching John Travolta but you truly become immersed into the world of George Malley a humble car mechanic who is suddenly blessed and cursed with amazing intelligence.
Alongside John Travolta is the wonderful Robert Duvall as the town's Doctor and again it is a performance which makes you forget that this is Robert Duvall but that of Doc Brunder, a man who deeply cares for George as if he is his own son. Whilst John Travolta and Robert Duvall are obviously the big name draws for "Phenomenon", Forest Whitaker makes a fine performance as George's best friend, the soul loving, Diana Ross infatuated farmer Nate Pope and Kyra Sedgwick is brilliant as the recently divorced Lace who becomes romantically involved with George. What is particularly nice is that whilst "Phenomenon" has this romantic element, it does not for a single moment feel contrived or out of place, which is hugely down to the brilliant on screen chemistry between John Travolta and Kyra Sedgwick.
What is also noticeable is the autumnal tones which director John Turtletaub has chosen to create a beautiful, easy on the eyes look to "Phenomenon". Whilst in some movies this effect can make the film seem overly soft and wishy-washy, this just adds to the enjoyment of "Phenomenon" as well as working as a great contrast for when the twist comes in the second part of the movie.
Also working well is the "Phenomenon" soundtrack featuring soft rock pieces such as "Change the World" by Eric Clapton and "I Have the Touch" by Peter Gabriel. But it also has quite a few soul numbers which mainly feature the delightful tones of Diana Ross, such as "Touch Me in the Morning" and "Baby Love", but the best comes from Aaron Neville singing "Crazy Love". All in all "Phenomenon" has one of the most fitting and enjoyable soundtracks I have heard on a film which is lovely as just background music for writing reviews.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Phenomenon" was not a phenomenal blockbuster on it's release back in 1996, although it did take over $100 million before falling off the big screen, it is a remarkably charming drama which is not only extremely easy to watch but is also very entertaining. With a simple but beautifully crafted plot, and some touching performances, this is a hugely overlooked gem from a year which was filled with action films such as "Independence Day" and "Mission: Impossible".