Phenomenon (1996) poster

Phenomenon (1996)


USA. 1996.


Director – Jon Turteltaub, Screenplay – Gerald DiPego, Producers – Barbara Boyle & Michael Taylor, Photography – Phedon Papamichael, Music – Thomas Newman, Visual Effects – Sony Pictures Imageworks (Supervisor – Ken Ralston), Special Effects Supervisor – David Blitstein, Production Design – Garreth Stover. Production Company – Touchstone.


John Travolta (George Malley), Kyra Sedgwick (Lace Pennamin), Forest Whitaker (Nathan Pope), Robert Duvall (Doc Brunner), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dr John Ringold), Bruce Young (Jack Hatch), Richard Kiley (Dr Willin), David Gallagher (Al Pennamin), Ashley Blicne (Laurie Pennamin)


While celebrating his 37th birthday, mechanic George Malley steps out of a bar and is hit by a mysterious white light from the sky. Soon after, George finds remarkable potentials within himself – he can read two or three books a day, has ideas for new inventions, can decode coded Air Force transmissions in his head and is able to predict earthquakes and levitate objects by the power of his mind. At the same time, he romantically pursues solo mother Lace Pennamin. However, George’s powers soon bring the attention of the FBI and rouse suspicion among the local townspeople.

If wholesome and positive films with inspiring messages about human values that leave you going out feeling sad but uplifted are your cup of tea, then you will love Phenomenon. If, like me, you get annoyed with films that obviously try to pull your emotional strings, Phenomenon is a film you go into resisting the entire way.

There is a certain strain of messianic wish fulfilment in American fantasy, a desire for the miraculous in the everyday. Indeed, Phenomenon is very similar to Powder (1995), which was released eight months earlier. In both films, small towns are turned upside down by people with miraculous abilities that include intelligence way off the scale, psychokinesis and a mystical communion with the rest of the universe. Both films contain object lessons about the prejudice of common people toward the gifted. Both films are also ultimately New Age films that iterate the view that everything in the universe is connected because it is made of energy. Both films also end with the death of the protagonist and their transmogrification into oneness with the rest of the universe.

John Travolta gains a supermind in Phenomenon (1996)
John Travolta gains a supermind

Phenomenon is a nicely made film. It has a fine cast, including good performances from John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Duvall. It is nicely photographed and pulls the emotional strings in the right places. The rub is that one is never less than aware that it is doing so. Unfortunately, the film is also intellectually barren. The great irony is that while it posits a protagonist who has an intellect beyond the realm of an ordinary human, Phenomenon‘s ultimate message is a profoundly anti-intellectual one. All that it has to say comes down to simplistic black-and-whites in feelgood New Age terms – the human spirit triumphing over dispassionate science, that everybody needs to be more tolerant, that positive thinking is good, that we all have untapped mental potential including dormant paranormal abilities, and that science and government are evil.

Phenomenon II (2003) was a tv movie reworking of the basic idea in an attempt to pitch the film as a tv series, which never sold. There the role of George was recast with Christopher Shyer.

Director Jon Turteltaub had previously made lightweight mainstream films such as 3 Ninjas (1992), Cool Runnings (1993) and While You Were Sleeping (1995). Phenomenon was his first serious film and proved a modest success. Turteltaub next went onto the bizarre killer among the apes film Instinct (1999), Disney’s amiable fantasy The Kid (2000), the action films National Treasure (2004) and National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and the killer shark film The Meg (2018). Turteltaub has also executive produced and directed some episodes of the post-holocaust tv series Jericho (2006-8), as well as the thriller series Harper’s Island (2009-10).

Trailer here

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