Review – Phenomenon (1996)

Superheroes may be a dime a dozen nowadays, but in 1996, the world was in a bit of a sweet spot. Gone were the times of Christopher Reeve’s Superman and even Tim Burton’s Batman. They never went away, of course, but they slowed down substantially. Every now and again, we’d be treated to an unconventional superhero, or superhuman tale, rather, that bares the bones of a comic book adaptation, but is more grounded in reality. It is almost never about saving the world as it is about discovering intrinsic value. Phenomenon is a film that I remember from my past, but I probably haven’t seen it since it came out in 1996, so I just had to revisit this film to see if it was still as good as I remember, or if its mostly nostalgia talking.

John Travolta plays George Malley, who owns the local auto repair shop in a small California town. After celebrating his birthday with friends at the local bar/hang-out, George heads for home. He pauses to watch a strange light in the sky, then collapses for a few seconds in the middle of the deserted street. In the days and weeks that follow, George finds his IQ and consciousness expanding dramatically, and develops telekinetic abilities. Despite his attempts to explain what has happened to him, with just a very few exceptions, most of the local townspeople treat the “new” George as a freak. His state of isolation becomes even more pronounced when his new-found abilities allow him to correctly predict an earthquake, and outside authorities become interested in what’s happened to him.


It’s actually quite fascinating when it comes down to the genre primary focused on in this movie, which is romance. Yes, he has a super brain, yes he has freaking telekinesis, and yes…he probably even has more psychic powers that deal with energy, but the film mostly uses that as a side-note as John Travolta spends days, weeks, and even months attempting to woo the lovely Kyra Sedgwick, and because of that sheer amount of focus on the romance, the chemistry is the strongest element in the film. Phenomenon also purposefully avoids diving into these characters’ past relationships, never once talking about them, which helps solidify the “true love” imagery that it was going for.

Now, I like a good unique romance as much as the next guy, but the story has to be written well, too, and this movie has some serious pacing issues. Time passes by without a care in the world because the movie is never really going anywhere. One scene, it’s his birthday when the inciting incident actually occurs. Next thing you know, it’s nine days later, then it’s five months…but why? Is his super-powered life that uninteresting that you just have to skip to the good parts? Is Kyra Sedgwick really being that hard-to-get? Passing time isn’t always a bad thing, but the audience needs to be clued in on time difference through effective editing and transitions, even if it’s a slow cross-fade that subtly hints that time has passed. These characters live in a place where five months from now, it looks the same, everyone is wearing the same things, has the same haircuts, no seasonal-hints, nothing that would immediately make the viewer think time has changed. So, when the main characters tell the audience that indeed, weeks and months have passed, they feel alarmingly confused.

Now, this film is a movie about self-discovery…in a way, but even that get’s caught in the crossfires, because from the beginning, John Travolta’s character knew who he was and was happy with it. It’s almost a movie about acceptance from the townsfolk, who don’t know what to make of him when he gains his abilities. So, in a sense, this film plays out in a narrative I don’t typically enjoy – about a be-er (a character that simply adapts to his surroundings and doesn’t really feel like he needs to “resolve” anything), and a steadfast be-er at that who shows very little growth or change because he doesn’t really have a clear influence character that challenges the way he sees the world. So, when it comes to messages, the film communicates next to nothing.

That being said, it sincerely is a feel-good film. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, this film embodies what the american dream is all about, complete with really charming characters, especially John Travolta. He’s played a lot of characters in the last few decades, but this is one of my favorite roles he’s done, as I have a terrible memory, but I remembered most of everything I saw in this movie, all due to his performance. It’s certainly not a perfect film by any means. It has a lot of issues that it runs into, but the idea that it was going for is not only intact, but still works rather well for a modern audience.


(Current 1996 Ranking: 6th Place out of 16 films)

Other Romantic Drama Films rated 79%:
The Notebook
Revolutionary Road

Acting (3/4) | Characters (3/4) | Casting (3/4) | Importance (1/4) | Chemistry (4/4)
Dialogue (2/2) | Balance (1/2) | Story Depth (1/2) | Originality (2/2) | Concept (2/2)
Visuals (1/2) | Cinematography (1/2) | Editing (1/2) | Advertising (2/2) | Music & Sound (1/2)
Introduction (2/2) | Inciting Incident (2/2) | Obstacles (0/2) | Climax (2/2) | Resolution (1/2)
Rewatchability (1/2) | Fun Experience (2/2) | Impulse to Buy or Own (0/2) | Impulse to Talk About or Recommend (0/2) | Engaging & Riveting (1/2)
John Travolta (10/10) | Superhuman (10/10) | Romance (10/10) | Halfway Decent (10/10)

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