'Phenomenon' is a somewhat ironic film, due to the fact that it makes use of the popular myth that humans can only utilize approximately ten percent of their brains. By having a main character who basically "evolves" into a higher being, a homo-superior of sorts, who is capable of tapping his full potential, we're given a character who puts the rest of humanity to shame with the way he views the world, the way he can piece together thoughts and even perform acts that are straight out of a superhero movie. The irony here is that the film only capably harnesses about ten percent of the neat ideas it could have developed, and instead lingers and meanders on very uninteresting plots and ideas.
On paper, 'Phenomenon' makes for a very interesting study. A typical man (John Travolta as George Malley) witnesses a flash of light and a booming sound after a night of drinking at the bar on his 37th birthday. From that moment on, his life is changed. The simple mechanic suddenly becomes better at everything he does. He picks up patterns and ideas; the books he reads late at night when he cannot sleep are memorized, his mind an inescapable cache of knowledge. He even finds himself capable of moving small objects with his mind. This ordinary Joe, who is coming to grips with the changes in his life, is ostracized and treated as a sideshow, despite his lack of ill intent, and very few people care for the man anymore, with the majority of those around him fearful of his newfound abilities or looking to him to be a savior of sorts.
Short of being blue and naked, it's almost like John Travolta becomes Dr. Manhattan from the 'Watchmen' universe. We have this wondrous being, putting his talents to work, for what he feels is the selfless betterment of mankind, even if his ego gets the better of him and puts him in the sights of the FBI. So...what would this man be if it weren't for the love story that breaks out in the middle of the film? Writer Gerald Di Pego ('The Forgotten') and director Jon Turtletaub ('Cool Runnings') prove to be the perfect storm of wasted potential, as an interesting, almost flawless man is made incomplete, his life meaningless in his own eyes due to a fascination with the woodcrafting object of his affection, played by Kyra Sedgwick.
I can look past the fact that the majority of 'Phenomenon' seems blatantly lifted from the various 'X-Men' comics over the years, most particularly the sequences of instantly learning a language, which was perhaps one of the stupidest mutant powers ever bestowed in the comics (for those wondering, to Cypher of the 1980's spin-off The New Mutants). I don't have any issue with the way this film didn't utilize human evolution due to "untapped potential" in the same way that 'Heroes' would to such great effect for the first season of its doomed four year arc. My problem with 'Phenomenon' has to do with mood and consistency.
We're supposed to be truly amazed and enraptured by Malley's abilities. He can predict earthquakes, he can sense the pain of others, he's mastered tele-freaking-kinesis for crying out loud! The man is a sponge, and he actually applies his newly acquired ability to absorb knowledge in creative ways. Instead, for some reason, we're given George Malley, the man who doubts himself and never can get past himself. We can't pity the attention he brings to himself in his small community, his legend slowly growing and reaching outward in tall-tale proportions, due to the way he doesn't hide his gifts. We don't quite understand why this 37 year old man is single, aside from his borderline unhealthy obsession with a woman which may indicate an obsessive personality that may creep people out. Throughout the film, we don't quite get why this one woman is special, why a man who is, by all definitions, the only complete person in the world is incomplete without her.
Love stories creep into sci-fi all the time, and in 'Phenomenon,' it does so to the point that the film is never clearly defined as science fiction or romantic drama. The point is, we have a film with hamhanded musical cues that pound in our heads what love is, when characters don't even truly know each other, and merely do a single act of kindness. Imagine that you held open the door for that attractive person of the opposite sex who works in the same building as you, and in the background there was booming music telling everyone that such a simple act was out of true love... kinda creepy, right? That's the kind of love story 'Phenomenon' presents, one that has no proper build-up, where characters seemingly fall into place for no apparent reason, simply because one character has smooshy feelings for another character, whose sole characteristic is her curly hair. No, really, describe Sedgwick's Lace character...all we get from the movie is that she's apprehensive (understandably considering the past few paragraphs...) and her physical appearance.
This is a film that does a good job capturing the reaction from the ordinary when faced with the extraordinary, in almost all facets. It's a great example of defining a close-knit community who must deal with change, yet are ill equipped to do so. It's also a film where the facial expressions of the lead actor don't ever match up to the emotions he's supposed to be portraying, where sideplots are thrown in like debris from a tornado, all getting closure at the same time, with one of the most nonsensical bullshit sentimental post-climax endings ever put on film. This is a film that could have been something more; instead, it seems to revel in mediocrity.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Disney brings 'Phenomenon' to Blu-ray on a Region Free BD50 disc. Like any other title from the company, pre-menu menus (if there is such a thing!) allow you to skip straight to the film, the menu, or to the next trailer/advertisement.
Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 encode with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, 'Phenomenon' looks like a real winner on Blu-ray.
What impressed me most with this disc was how utterly and perfectly clean whites were, with no noise, no tint, no nothin', just pure, beautiful, natural nothingness. Night skies are super inky without any crushing concerns, close-ups sport solid details, while mid-range shots show plenty of definition to keep one interested, and picture depth is never an issue. Hair never clumps, there's never a moment without some kind of stray hair popping around, and the textures on denims and sweaters look beyond great. I did notice a light scratch every now and again, but what really caught my eye were a few bits of minor flickering, with a few small stutters early, and then one moment, for a single frame, where a corner was far too bright before catching up to the rest of the picture, the kind of minor mistake that even a cheap remaster probably would have caught. Still, it's hard to complain here.
This Blu-ray looks absolutely great for a low priced catalog dump!
When I review a Blu-ray, I'm constantly writing notes, with a full screen text editing program divided into three sections: film notes, video notes, audio notes, in that order. I often need to scroll down and create more space or start tabbing over and creating multiple notes on one line, when a feature gives me a lot to talk about. For 'Phenomenon,' I found I only wrote two lines for the audio the entire time the movie was running. Funnily enough, I can't say that's a bad thing this time around. See, for a film this old, the fact that I didn't quite notice that the rears were never under-utilized means this flick has a pretty solid full-room mix. I didn't have any gripes posted about missed bass opportunities, because this film had a couple (as in two), while the soundtrack sported a light thump every now and again. What I did write down was the solid dynamic range (which was, again, surprising), the warm and very focused dialogue (that may be too darned in your face, considering exterior dialogue often sounds too good to be true) never missed a beat, and prioritization and comprehension were never issues. Less is more when it comes to gripes. I can honestly say I was quite impressed by this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This flick's audio must have been ahead of its time, considering these recent waves of live-action titles (on generic blue discs with no art) have been the very definition of budget titles!
The lone extra on this release is not even mentioned on the package, which proudly touts high def video and audio instead of supplements. On the main menu, you can access the Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 min) for the film.
'Phenomenon' is a frustrating film; it could have been so much more than what it is, and what it is can be entirely frustrating and nonsensical. This film tries to be smart and intriguing, then throws in one of the most obligatory, stupid, boring, and entirely unnecessary love angles I've ever seen in a film. This is not a short movie by any means. This Blu-ray release is solid, with great video and audio qualities, though the supplements department has been ransacked, pillaged, and left for dead in a smoldering pile of ash. Fans of the film should adore this release. Worth a look.