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Phenomenon

September 11, 2015

PhenAn ordinary man sees a bright light descend from the sky, and discovers he now has super-intelligence and telekinesis.

George, a humble auto mechanic, is instantly transformed into a genius whose mind works overtime with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and who can even move objects through telekinesis. George now reads two or three books a day, learns Portuguese in twenty minutes, and conducts homemade experiments with fertilizers, solar energy; and organic automobile fuel.

The local residents increasingly ostracize George as they become suspicous of him and a little fearful of his unexplained new powers. George’s best friends stand by him.

Like E.T., George is taken captive by the government and submitted to a battery of tests. He is finally released, though constantly kept under surveillance. Eventually the doctors discover that George did not, in fact, have an extraterrestrial encounter but instead suffers from a rare and inoperable brain tumor. Though the tumor allows George to use more of his brain than the average human, it is quickly killing him at the same time. As in the case of E.T., the scientists and doctors conspire with the government to dissect his brain and study it, but George escapes in order to spend his last hours peacefully with Lace and her children.

Throughout the film, we discover that what has been happening to George is that he has become more in tune with the world around him, more perceptive, and more in harmony with the forces of nature. He can even feel the vibrations of an earthquake well before it occurs. Able to make a pencil move by merely stretching out his hand toward it, he describes his ability not as some miraculous power, but as “a partnership,” “a collaboration,” and “a dance” between himself and the pencil. George realizes that “we’re all made of the same stuff….living energy” and that we are all interconnected. In fact, George sees himself as “the possibility” of what humans may someday become if our minds were used to a fuller capacity and allowed to work with rather than merely on nature.

Critics and reviewers of Phenomenon have often noted its similarities to the teachings of Scientology, of which John Travolta is himself a member. Scientologists teach that humans are, at the core of their being, immortal “thetans” (having traveled here from other parts of the universe) who, if properly trained, can harness the powers of their minds and rid themselves of pain, disease, and suffering. Through a course of study called “dianetics,” Scientology attempts to teach people how to interact more fruitfully with their environments by “clearing” themselves of unwanted, unconscious memories. As Hubbard wrote, “We seek only evolution to higher states of being for the individual and for Society

It is difficult to believe that the resemblance between Phenomenon and Scientology is merely coincidental, but there is still much in the film that does not require a Scientology connection and that is compatible with the holistic vision of shalom found in the Bible. ….The interconnectedness of all life on the planet is hardly an insight that human beings first picked up from Scientology! Indeed, the biblical notion of shalom is far more holistic than Scientology’s essentially dualistic relationship between soul and body and overemphasis on the human mind as the location of the soul.

Phenomenon provides a remarkable allegory of Christ’s ascension and session set up by George’s own interpretation of his death, especially his final talk with Lace’s two children, who are partly sad and partly angry about the fact that George is dying. George offers to them a parable of what is happening to him: You know, if we were to put this apple down and leave it, it would be spoiled and gone within a few days; but, if we were to take a bite of it like this, it would become a part of us and we could take it with us forever. . . Everything is on its way to somewhere. Everything.

Again, it is probably possible to interpret George’s analysis as Scientology but his words are actually not that far removed from the apostle Paul’s own interpretation of death: That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies: and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. . . So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:36—44)

Jesus also speaks of death in a similar way: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24).

George’s death can be interpreted as an allegory of resurrection, ascension, and session insofar as his physical death and absence is translated into a spiritual rebirth and ongoing presence. George is removed bodily but is present to Lace in her experience of the wind gently rocking the trees. George is no longer around to jot down ideas and try out experiments, but he is resurrected in the notebooks full of ideas and projects he leaves behind and in the inspiration he has given to his friends. As the film closes with Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” in the background, Nate and Ella, the Portuguese woman George helped to match him up with, are bringing bushels of corn into the tavern that George used to frequent. A party has been convened to celebrate George’s life on the anniversary of his birthday. Adding to the symbolism of the moment, Ella is pregnant, and we also remember that the corn brought by Nate was George’s idea and was grown with George’s fertilizer recipe. Though George is gone, he is nonetheless present in the dreams, memories, plans, and relationships he has inspired and continues to inspire. Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema – B. Stone pp. 114f

Bonnie: George Malley! You learned the Portuguese language in 20 minutes?
George Malley: Not all of it.

 

Doc: Let’s see, uh… George… George… there’s a tumor in your brain, that’s spread out like a hand, threads of it, you know, everywhere. But instead of dysfunction – now here’s the mystery, George. Instead of destroying brain function, so far it’s been stimulating it. We can’t understand that. You have more area of active brain use than anybody ever tested – ever – because of those tentacles. I mean, we’ve seen tumors like this before, it’s called astrocytoma. And it explains, uh, the dizziness, and… the illusion of light. But the way it’s in there, waking up areas of the brain, it’s a… big mystery. So…
George Malley: And it’s killing me.

George Malley: Everything is on its way to somewhere.

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