The Lathe of Heaven
directed by Fred Barzyk & David R. Loxton
starring Bruce Davison, Kevin Conway, and Margaret Avery
1980, PBS (available through New Video Group), unrated
reviewed by Ryan C. Lieske
I love science fiction. My first true love is horror, but SF would have to be a close second. I'll watch any overblown Hollywood SF action epic with billions of dollars in pyrotechnics, like Armageddon, and I even like silly little T&A romps like Species 2. But ultimately I like serious, dramatic SF films most, movies with well-developed stories and a real grasp of science, and not just a reliance on special effects and makeup.
They used to make idea-based movies all time: Forbidden Planet, the original Planet of the Apes, This Island Earth, Logan's Run, and Soylent Green. Sure, these movies had special effects and makeup and wonderful set design, but most importantly, they were about ideas. Some matter of technological science, or of psychology, or anthropology. Something to chew on. You had a damn good time watching them, but you could walk away from them with something to ponder. In recent years, the "smart, dramatic" SF film has been replaced by more action-oriented storytelling. And that's all fine and good; I enjoy those types of films immensely, as I said before. But it's nice to take a break once in awhile and let the brain actually do some thinking while watching a flick.
I can think of several films in the past ten to twenty years that fit in this category: E.T., Starman, Iceman, Contact, Gattaca, and Bicentennial Man (which, despite what critics would have you believe, is actually a very smart, poignant film).
There haven't been many, but those listed above were certainly thought-provoking and a nice break from the other films they most often got buried under at the box office. In 2000, Brian DePalma tried making a serious SF film with Mission to Mars, but he failed spectacularly.
And what does all this have to do with anything? Well, it is a preface to me telling you what I thought about a wonderful little movie that I recently found on DVD called The Lathe of Heaven. And it certainly fits into the intelligent SF category that I illustrated above.
This film was produced for public access and went missing sometime in the late 80s. It was thought to have been lost for good, but a 2" tape of it was found, and New Video has made a new digital master of it and finally brought it back to the public. I had never heard of the film before, but was familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of the book upon which it was based. I purchased the movies and found it to be a genuine delight.
Obviously, given the shape and format of the source material, the quality of the video transfer is on the rough side. The video's introduction details the resurrection of this movie and warns the viewer that "ghosting" and darkening of the images will be present. It is, however, the best possible production that could be done, and I thank the stars they were able to do that much, because it would be a real shame if this mini-masterpiece were lost forever. Besides, we movie geeks are used to watching poorly-transferred bootlegs of films we can't get in the States yet, so watching this film was hardly a chore compared to some truly awful PAL-scrambled videos I've sat through.
The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of George Orr (played by Bruce Davison), who fears that his dreams can change reality. He overdoes on some medication he's taking, and is then ordered by the state to seek professional psychiatric help. He goes to see Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who dismisses George's fears at first. Then, after hypnotizing George and witnessing the transformative powers of his dreams first hand, he realizes that this poor soul has been given an extraordinary power. And the doctor sees this as a power that can be harnessed for the betterment of mankind, and for the planet, which has been ravaged by pollution and plague.
Once George catches on to the doctor's plans, he resists. He doesn't want to be a tool. He doesn't want to play God. From there, a fascinating morality play unfolds as the doctor tries to convince George that he wants to use him to make the world a better place; that God has given them this force to work with, and that they should not deny God's wishes. George just wants to live a normal life, but he can't control the dreams, and they change the world in many ways, some good, others not.
Davison and Conway play their parts with conviction, lending weight to the somewhat fantastic events. In the wrong hands, the performances could've been silly.
There are many layers to the movie, as you can imagine. Issues ranging from racism to environmental degradation to alien life zigzag across the landscape of the screen, sending the viewer into a journey where at first the solution seems simple, but as the tale unfolds, and we see more and more into the souls of the characters involved, we learn that most of the time in life, and in the universe, really, there are no simple answers. There can be no salvation without some damnation.
I don't want to really talk much more about it for fear of tainting your impressions going into it. It should be watched with a clear, open mind, letting it flow over you, sinking into you. You will want to talk to others about it afterwards, I promise. It may even bring a tear to your eye. There were times I got a bit choked up. At other times, chills scuttled over me, especially when the time comes that they explain the title. All I could say was "Wow."
I immediately went out and bought the novel. The DVD includes a taped interview with Le Guin by Bill Moyers, and she states that she is happy with the film, but that the film is of course not the book. If the film was that powerful, I can't wait to see how more there is to it on the page, where ideas can be expanded much more than in the confines of an hour and forty-minute film.
The interview is the only supplement on the DVD, but given the rarity that this film is, it's a joy just to have that on DVD. Although the interview is quite entertaining. Le Guin is extremely intelligent and personable to listen to. Hearing her discuss her work made me want to explore her literary endeavors beyond The Lathe of Heaven.
For fans of "serious, dramatic" SF, this is a true, mind-blowing, cerebral treat. Those who only look for lasers, spaceships, and slimy aliens in their SF will find this a chore to sit through. For all others, it is like manna from Heaven.