‘Phenomenon’: Or, How to Make Use of Good Manure

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a meager mortal humanoid named John Travolta was renowned for his abilities to sing, dance, and act for the entertainment of the masses, who — while sometimes critical of his work — still applauded his talents as well earned and for which he worked hard.

Unfortunately, since then, Travolta — along with an equally acclaimed peer, actor Tom Cruise — became more famous for a bizarre attraction to a somewhat small but disproportionally influential cult of secretive people who adhered to an exceedingly strange philosophy, which dubbed itself “Scientology”, based on the pseudo-metaphysical writings of late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Sometime before being dismissed as out of his gourd, Travolta made a film more than suggestive of his growing attraction to the marriage of the worlds of spiritualism and science fiction, an unsubtlely allegorical piece with the overt misnomer of Phenomenon.

Originally released in 1996, coinciding with the rise of the television phenomenon known as The X-Files and the optimistic first presidential term of Bill Clinton, Phenomenon tells the story of how a simple, small-town, animal-loving mechanic (who just so happens to do a little carpentry on the side) named George Malley (Travolta) becomes a superhuman, miracle-working, savior-like being after observing an unidentifiable flashing occurrence in the heavens minutes before the midnight ending of his 37th birthday. Thinly veiled as a metaphor for the New Testament travails of the Western world’s most controversial figure, Jesus Christ, George’s story does not try very hard to mask the notion that godlike potential lies within the heart of every person … that is, if only he or she is so fortunate as to be bestowed that gift from the benevolent light shows of similar UFOs throughout the world.

Shortly after witnessing his own heavenly birthday present, George begins to stun his friends and neighbors with his growing mental capabilities, just as Christ tried to prove his credo with an array of munificent miracles. For example, George demonstrates his potential to solve almost all the world’s problems by revealing to his best friend, the transparently named Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker), novel inventions such as an organic fertilizer that yields an exponentially increased amount of fruit and vegetation, automotive engines running on garbage and manure that achieve over 90 mpg, and solar-powered cells based on photosynthesis thousands of times more efficient than those currently patented, thereby saving humanity from all its hunger, energy, and environmental troubles.

When he proves to the skeptically minded Doc (Robert Duvall) his telekinetic abilities and finds a missing sick child through telepathy, George is not merely depicted as akin to the Christian Savior, he’s actually better: After all, Christ simply put out a few profound parables; George is a superman of action — just like Scientology promotes.

It’s not too hard to see all the comparisons and contrasts between George’s greatness and Christ’s, just like one could see how love interest Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedwick) could be aligned with concept of Mary Magdelene’s being Christ’s mortal wife, particularly when she washes George’s hair (just as Magdelene washed Jesus’ feet). Phenomenon‘s attempt to promote the underlying theories of Scientology as patently more applicable and understandable than those of pretty much any other worldview, suggests John Travolta may not necessarily see himself as its most messianic figure, but as one more akin to the role John the Baptist plays in the Christian Bible: he is preparing the way for some great revelation by laying the groundwork for the general masses to be able to consume all Mr. Hubbard had to say regarding how the planet Earth operates.

After all, one must keep in mind Travolta was particularly spiritually minded during this period, in which his father died in May 1995, making Phenomenon in between releasing Michael (playing the role of Archangel Michael) and Orientation: A Scientology Information Film. Although Scientology has only become a majorly controversial subject in popular culture over the past decade or two (especially following the death of Travolta’s autistic son Jett from a seizure in January 2009), Travolta has claimed membership to the self-proclaimed church since his first rise to stardom in 1975. Thus, reading this film in such a context cannot be said to be all that beyond comprehension.

Whether Scientology may be considered a reasonable religion or lunatic-fringe cult remains neither here nor there — in either instance Phenomenon is a remarkably mediocre film, hardly a footnote in Travolta’s and its stellar cast’s lengthy careers. Its rerelease by Disney in Blu-ray format on 3 July 2012 (commemorating its sweet 16) seems to be nothing more than rote, with its only extras being the same as with Disney’s 2004 DVD: the film’s theatrical trailer, which is in standard definition (both letterboxed and windowboxed) and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. And while the soundtrack, supervised by Robbie Robertson, seamlessly interweaves Thomas Newman’s score with such songs as Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day Is a Winding Road” and Eric Clapton’s “Change the World”, its crystal clear rendering on a 50 GB BR disc doesn’t bring any more life to the film, with color tones so earthy one feels this sleeper’s been dug from out of a grave.

Unless one just happens to be a fanatic of one of the cast members (or the Blu-Ray format), there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to run out to buy Phenomenon, which is sad, considering the star power behind the film. There’s nothing extraordinary about this movie, nothing so phenomenal as the great godlike George. Yet, of course, a sentimental movie this big in scope can overlook so small a loose end such as what ultimately becomes of George’s beloved bloodhound Attila. Poor dog … poor god, as well.

RATING 4 / 10