The Lathe of Heaven (1980) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
There's only so much digital remastering can really do for a 1980 TV movie
As the seventies came to a close, science-fiction films were exploding with big budget space operas in an effort to chase down the unprecedented success of Star Wars. In the midst of this glut of spaceships and laserbeams, the filmmaking duo of David Loxton and Fred Barzyk wanted to make something a little more sophisticated in tone and a little more weighty in terms of artistic merit. They turned to Ursula K. Le Guin and asked if they could adapt her novel, The Lathe of Heaven, as part of a series of speculative fiction adaptations being funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Le Guin agreed, as long as she could maintain a sizable amount of creative control, and the movie was greenlit for a tight two week shoot and a tiny $250,000 budget, which while not a lot for your average film, was a massive amount for a PBS production.
It's insane enough that this happened at all, but what's even crazier is that it actually worked. 1980's The Lathe of Heaven is a good movie, despite pretty much everything working against it. It's a faithful adaptation with earnest performances that manages to get across many of Le Guin's concepts and ideas without needing to dumb them down. Naturally, compared to a big budget film, the production values are severely lacking, but as a made-for-TV production in 1980, it's absolutely incredible.
Let's start with the actors. The best of the bunch is Kevin Conway (not to be confused with Kevin Conroy) as Dr. Haber. Conway does put some relish into the role to make it clear he's the villain of the piece, but his is still a sincere performance that makes you believe that he believes. He's not quite the same character he is in the book--this Haber is not as good a liar and is thankfully less talkative--but his core motivations and the conflict that results are kept completely intact, delivered with nuance by Conway.
Kevin Conway kinda steals the movie, if I'm honest
George Orr is played by Bruce Davison (Willard, X-Men). Davison has a pretty thankless job in playing such a deliberately bland character, but like Conway, he's able to bring a certain earnestness to his performance. His character switch late in the story is more explicable in the movie than in the book, and Davison handles it pretty well. Still, he kind of feels like a weird hybrid of Harry Anderson and Bruce Dern, and he just doesn't stand a chance against Conway's Haber.
The most disappointing performance, though, goes to Margaret Avery as Heather Lelache. Even though I recognize that Avery is a good actor--she deserved her Oscar nomination for The Color Purple--she doesn't do a particularly good job as Heather. She doesn't have the slick sensuality or any chemistry whatsoever with Davison, and though she does have one or two good scenes late in the film, her character feels far more disposable than it should. Avery's stilted acting lends every scene she's in a cheaply theatrical air, helping to remind you that this movie was made in just two weeks.
Don't get me wrong; she's not terrible
The special effects don't help, either. While the first half of the movie gets away with not showing too much, the second half can't help but show its lack of money. However, what the film lacks in budget, it makes up for in ambition. It goes all in to adapt Le Guin's novel in full, replete with the turtle-like aliens and the human race turning grey. The aliens are obviously just guys in big rubber suits, but they're kind of endearing, kind of like the Vogons from the BBC TV version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As for the people turning grey, it's done practically with make-up rather than with much easier and cheaper black-and-white filters, for which the filmmakers deserve credit. Still, you can see skin color under the hairline and people are still pretty obviously separable into their individual ethnicities.
On the subject of the grey people, I also have to point out a continuity problem that arises from a minor change to the story near the end. In the movie, George Orr has his abilities taken away before he dreams Heather back to reality and brings color back to the people. This raises the question of whether George was really "cured," and it makes the climax needlessly more confusing. But this is honestly a minor nitpick; the screenplay, which was overseen by Le Guin herself, is incredibly true to the book, much truer than the lackluster 2002 adaptation.
It's definitely trying
And that's why, despite it all, this is still a great film. It really hammers home a lot of Le Guin's concepts, and it never once shies away from the difficult political and philosophical questions raised by the novel. There is of course some compression, and some of the finer detail is lost in translation, but the themes are still there and accessible even to audiences that haven't read the book. (Anectodotally, I can refer to my wife, who watched the movie without reading the book but still totally gets it.)
1980's The Lathe of Heaven is thus positive proof that you can make an intelligent science-fiction film without all the bells and whistles of a heavily financed Hollywood production. A good story with a lot of meat on its bones can make up for a lot of shortcomings, and you don't have to pander to the lowest common denominator to make a good movie. It was a big hit in its day and was in such high demand that the CPB spent a bunch more money resecuring the rights and re-releasing the film for its twentieth anniversary. However, if there's one thing I will not forgive, it's that awful Beatles cover. Come on, PBS; you couldn't pitch in a few more bucks to get the real thing?
-e. magill 12/10/2020
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