John Travolta Plays It Safe In Feel-Good 'Phenomenon'

"Phenomenon," one of the summer's more appealing movies, stars John Travolta as a man with uncanny powers. Apart from its own merits, it helps answer an interesting question some observers have been asking: How cannily is Travolta handling the high-powered stardom he's enjoyed since "Pulp Fiction" rejuvenated his career two years ago?

This issue has been raised most visibly by Peter Bart of Variety, the show-business trade paper. In a column headlined "Will Stars Self-Destruct?" he spotlights Travolta's recent departure from "The Double," a Roman Polanski movie now in production. Travolta signed onto the movie for $17 million, Mr. Bart notes, but left in a huff when Polanski tried to direct him - guiding his "personal performance" on the set instead of conveying his "creative vision" more discreetly in written form.

Even for a superstar like Travolta, isn't it a bit arrogant to tell the director of "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby" to submit his suggestions on note paper instead of simply saying what's on his mind?

It's hard to disagree with Bart when he suggests Travolta's tiff is part of a current tendency for on-camera talents to play it extra safe with their images - refusing any kind of risk that might jolt the expectations of their fans and hence their dependability at the box office. The offbeat "Last Action Hero" was a bomb? Arnold Schwarzenegger erases it with "Eraser," as conventional as it is violent. Tom Cruise turns producer as well as star? He hedges his bet with "Mission: Impossible," a sure-fire commodity that could have been generated by a clever computer program.

This trend bodes little good for moviegoers who value thought and originality as well as snap and crackle in their entertainment. Bart points to the recent "Broken Arrow" as a sign that Travolta - who rose in his teens, fell in his early 20s, and took years to regain his stardom - might now be so fixated on safety that dullness and predictability could become his worst enemies.

But happily, there's more recent evidence that suggests this reasoning might be wrong, at least where Travolta is concerned. With its feel-good screenplay and folksy performances, "Phenomenon" is not exactly a high-risk project. Its quiet atmosphere and nonviolent content make it the opposite of most current big-star movies, though, and even its PG rating is almost an endangered species at the moment.

In short, it's a healthy try at counterprogramming, joining another new Walt Disney production - "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" - in a valiant fight against the Schwarzenegger and Cruise brigade. If it holds its own against the mammoth "Independence Day," opening at the same time, it could spark a new move toward Hollywood wholesomeness. If not, Travolta will probably make a dozen "Broken Arrow" clones in a row, and it'll be hard to blame him.

The hero of "Phenomenon" is George Malley, a small-town auto mechanic with a good heart, a pleasant circle of friends, and a life that couldn't be more ordinary. This changes when a mysterious flash of light zaps him from the sky one night, altering his abilities in remarkable ways. His mind is quicker, his energy is steadier, his appetite for knowledge is keener than ever. Things really get strange when he finds that a wave of his finger can move an object from across the room.

What's going on? Nobody can figure it out, including the local doctor, whose advice helps George keep an even keel during these unsettling events.

But one thing is certain: People are frightened by what they don't understand, and while some of George's friends stay at his side, others start seeing him as a freak, a threat, or both. Matters don't improve when the military decides he's a security risk - he breaks codes as easily as most of us do crossword puzzles - and when the medical establishment labels his condition an illness and moves in heavy equipment for some research, George wants nothing to do with it.

Science-fiction fans may recognize echoes of Daniel Keyes's classic story "Flowers for Algernon," about a slow-witted man who becomes a genius, which Cliff Robertson made into the hit film "Charly" in 1968. "Phenomenon" also resembles the popular "Forrest Gump," another look at an "abnormal" man in a narrow-minded society.

George is really an anti-Gump, though, since his story celebrates thinking-power instead of saying dullness is delightful. Its flaw is that it never allows him to develop a purpose for his new abilities. This doesn't make sense since his constant reading must put him in contact with the world's most constructive thinkers.

Near the end, the movie slides into medical jargon and new-age clichs. But the last scenes reaffirm the human spirit as greater than technologies and philosophies that try to explain it in material or mystical terms. The finale can be called upbeat or downbeat, depending on your interpretation, but either way it makes a sweetly sentimental conclusion.

Disney veteran Jon Turteltaub directed the film. Adding to its appeal is solid acting by Kyra Sedgwick as George's girlfriend, Jeffrey DeMunn as a professor who's not sure what to make of him, and Forest Whitaker as his closest pal, giving his best performance since "The Crying Game."

Worth special mention is the wonderful Robert Duvall ("Doc"), a star who has never allowed risk-free careerism to stifle his depth and versatility.

*'Phenomenon' has a PG rating. It contains a few vulgar words, a brief moment of nudity, and discussion of the hero's condition in coldly medical terms.

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