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The Lathe Of Heaven (1980)
Directors: David R. Loxton and Fred Barzyk
review by Tony Lee
Based on the classic 1971 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, this TV movie has recently appeared on video in the USA, after 20 years of obscurity. A beguiling treat for SF fans, it was worth the wait, though!
Bruce Davison stars as George Orr, a troubled young man charged with drug abuse, and forced into psychiatric counselling by the nanny state. Orr is terrified that his 'effective' dreams are actually coming true (hence his attempts to prevent REM sleep by mixing downers). Kevin Conway's egotistical shrink, Dr Haber, uses an experimental, machine regulated hypnosis to test his patient's bizarre claims - and so begins a fascinating character study of megalomania (offering a satirical twist on such wish-fulfilment tales as H.G. Wells' The Man Who Could Work Miracles - filmed successfully as a fantasy comedy by Alexander Korda in 1936) and the slow unravelling of environment, seemingly beleaguered society and, eventually, the very physical makeup of reality.
Much has been said about Le Guin's book being a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and any evaluation of this film's value in terms of source material, genre inspiration, and thematic borrowings must agree that, if only in terms of the main protagonist being alone in having any memory of the world before the effective dream, The Lathe of Heaven is unmistakably Dickian in feel if not in tone. When Orr realises that Haber is exploiting his extraordinary ability, with little intention of 'treating' him at all, he turns to a civil rights lawyer (crucially played, for extra resonance, by black actress Margaret Avery) for help, and this is where the influence of Dick is most apparent, as even Orr realises his story, and original crime, marks him out as paranoid and delusional. Importantly, though, for the moral impact of this tale, Haber is not presented as an evil man. He's just as frustrated and imperfect ("neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them... and psychiatrists collect the rent"), and as blind to the obvious: man is not god, as the rest of us. But there are stronger elements of everyday humanity and hope in Le Guin's novel than may be found in Dick's writings, and this film reflects that bias in the closing scenes, despite the inherent ambiguity.
Davison's Orr is a genie on the loose, turning the rainy climate to heatwave drought, halting conflict between humans by calling down alien visitors (the glowing, faceless turtle-men are a wonderfully eccentric creation), and putting an end to racism by turning all peoples grey. This ambitious story isn't perfectly translated for the small screen, and at times the inadequate budget is all too evident. But the various designers and special effects crew achieve a number of startling transformations, so that many dramatic moments are underlined, not overwhelmed, by the visuals - while the thought-provoking script and assured performances are rarely less than mesmerising because, rather than in spite of, these low-key artistic techniques.
A marvellous example of what genre TV can be, then, this deserves a look if only for the rarity of seeing acclaimed literary SF efficiently turned into a movie.
previously published in VideoVista #19
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