"Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn
this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using
reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high
attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of
In 1971, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a science fiction tome titled "The Lathe of Heaven." The book quickly gained some notoriety and attention in the sci-fi world, which led PBS to turn it into a TV movie back in 1980. Many consider that movie a good adaptation of the story and Taoist philosophy detailed by Le Guin in her book. Mired in red tape, that movie languished in a hidden PBS vault causing fans of the work to clamor for a repeat broadcast. Luckily, some big name stars (Tom Hanks for one) recently used their clout to have it freed from its legal confines, and the PBS movie once again saw the light of day in early 2002.
I have not had the opportunity to read the book nor have I seen the 1980 PBS version. With that, I am obviously unfamiliar with the original text and cannot fairly relate this 2002 A&E incarnation to either of its predecessors. I have trolled through the Internet and solicited feedback from friends and colleagues, and the nearly unanimous opinion is that this second film does not do the book justice on most levels. I am told that the entire Taoist undercurrent of the text is excised (which, of what I know of Taoism, seems to be true) along with several other "key events." Hence, from what I've learned, if you've read the original novel or seen the PBS film, then you probably will not like this latest retelling by A&E. As I do not fall into that category, I will simply tell you what I think about this film in and of itself.
Facts of the Case
George Orr (Lukas Hass, Mars Attacks!) is a young man with troubling dreams. For many years, George has believed that his dreams have the power to alter reality, but only he can notice that anything has changed. Plagued by the demons of what he has unintentionally wrought, George has succumbed to stealing drugs to keep him from dreaming. Unfortunately, in this near future, George is not a very good thief and is easily caught and taken to trial. There, he is given a court appointed defense attorney (Lisa Bonet, The Cosby Show, Enemy of the State) who is able to negotiate probation with counseling.
Very much wanting to try and do something about his dreams, George visits his appointed counselor, Dr. Haber (James Caan, The Way of the Gun, Honeymoon in Vegas, Brian's Song), and explains why he stole the drugs. Being a trained medical professional, Dr. Haber is highly dubious of George's claim yet is willing to entertain his story. As their sessions progress, Dr. Haber utilizes technology to map George's brainwaves while he sleeps. During these mapping sessions, Dr. Haber gives George innocent suggestions to steer his dreams in directions in which the doctor doesn't believe any harm could befall. One of the doctor's comments is an innocent suggestion that ends up changing Dr. Haber's life: he becomes a very successful and powerful man in the country.
George is appalled that the doctor has used his power to better his own life. However, George cannot leave the sessions due to the court order and the doctor's newfound power. With each successive session, Dr. Haber makes further changes that affect the lives of every person on the planet. Finally George reaches his breaking point and flees from Dr. Haber and his manipulations. Thus begins George's quest to return things to "normal."
I enjoyed this movie. It offers an intriguing and provocative premise and executes it quite convincingly for an A&E movie of the week. Granted, Le Guin purists will undoubtedly find many faults in this version, yet as a Lathe virgin, I enjoyed the unfolding story and the ambiguity of the unfolding tale.
While many (if not most?) of the underlying philosophies and cautionary statements were excised, enough of them remain in the film to allow you some insight into what Le Guin was saying in her novel. Lathe is a story intended to make the viewer/reader think about what is happening in society. As events unfolded and steered Le Guin to tell her tale, incidents in the 21st century are eerily applicable—yet another testament that history does repeat itself and we often do not learn from our previous mistakes. This vision of the near future is different from many others because what is happening in today's society actually can be projected to lead to this potential future. Additionally, these events that are often detailed as optimistic aspirations for a better world yield unforeseen and dire consequences in this tale.
Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.
Beyond the story, this version has quite a lot going for it and I want to start with Lukas Haas. I've never been overly impressed by him—especially since I've seen so little of his work—but in this film, he's excellent. His performance is subtle, nuanced, and compelling. I completely believed his character, his peril, and his plight. I have newfound respect for Lukas and his work. It's always a nice delight to be surprised by the quality of work from someone you have little expectations. What else works in this version is the budget. That may be an odd statement, but I've heard numerous complaints that the PBS version is hurt by its shoestring budget. Fortunately, A&E tossed enough money to this interpretation to give it a solid, polished feel. Effects, costumes, and sets/locations are well done and fitting for this vision of the future. As George is often revising reality, there are many slight changes transpiring throughout the film that are cleverly realized through an impressive production crew, including very competent direction by Philip Hass (no relation to Lukas). Lastly, Angelo Badalamenti's score is immediately haunting and beautiful. It's some of his best work since Twin Peaks.
What is perhaps the biggest strength of this version is the sense of ambiguity in the story. The premise of a man whose dreams can alter reality can be interpreted in a multitude of directions: he truly can alter reality; he cannot alter reality; he's insane; he's dreaming; he's visiting alternate universes; he's under an alien influence; and so on. The way the story unfolds, you're not certain what is happening to George Orr. You continually wonder what is happening, if anything? What's real and what's imagined? What is going on with George Orr? I enjoyed the abstraction of the film and not having someone feel necessitated to spoon-feed a clear-cut explanation to me. I'm free to make my own deductions and mistakes.
And, again, the restrained political, social, and moral messages are insightful and stimulating. It's a refreshing moralistic tale.
There are a several problems that I do have with Lathe with the foremost being the acting of James Caan. Normally he's a very solid and capable actor, but in this instance there was something decidedly lacking in his performance. I just did not feel he captured the essence of the doctor, and this hurt the film seeing how much screen time he has. While a competent performance, it feels weak because of Haas' inspired work. The other main problem I have is with the character of Mannie (David Strathairn, Sneakers, The River Wild, L.A. Confidential), George's friend and constant through all shifts in reality. This character is so thoroughly underdeveloped that I was really unable to infer his purpose. I would be intrigued to know more about him, and would have liked a touch more focus on this man.
So how does the disc treat the movie? Not too bad at all. For a TV movie, there was a nice budget allowing solid transfers. On the video front, we get a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation with a subdued yet accurate palette, solid contrast, and overall good definition. There is some very slight haloing in a few scenes, but it is minimal and not obtrusive. There are no other transfer errors. The audio is a nice 2.0 Dolby Digital that is clean and clear from the front speakers. A major oversight is the lack of any subtitles on the disc; there's no excuse for not including these.
This is a relatively bare bones release with just a few specials added. On the insignificant side is the biography section with the usual toss-away information. Fortunately, the only other bonus feature is much better: "The Making of Lathe of Heaven." The feature is a brief yet informative look at what went into this version. It offers some additional insights and clarifications into the film and the original novel. These morsels are just enough to put things into perspective and not detract from the film.
Minor note: Contrary to the packaging, the running time of the film is 94 minutes, not 104, and the running time of the featurette is 20 minutes, not 25.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No movie can ever do a book justice. If you want an excellent story, then stick with the novel by Le Guin. You simply cannot distill the essence of a fascinating written work into the visual medium without losing much of what made the original text so compelling. You'll always do better when you use your imagination with the writer's words. Besides, when the author herself isn't thrilled with the movie that is created from her words, you should be wary.
This is a very interesting movie, and I am glad to have had a chance to view it. I would hope that this next statement is as complementary to others as it is to me: I appreciated this movie so much that I am going to seek out Le Guin's original novel and give it a read to learn more: What's up with Mannie? What's up with the jellyfish? Taoism? Alien invasions? Alternate realities? Insanity? Let me see what I may have missed in the movie.
While probably not worthy of a full purchase, I certainly would recommend this as a rental on a chilly winter eve. It's a very well presented story with messages woven on multiple layers.
Granted, Le Guin isn't thrilled with this version of the film because she was left out of the loop. Yes, many fans of her work do not like this version due to what is left out. Though, if I may be so bold, I believe that by not including that "certain scene," it keeps the story locked more firmly in plausible reality than by perhaps including "that scene." Regardless, I think this is a very good movie in its own right and worthy of a chance to stand on its own merits. So, contrary to my deduction earlier, I think that even if you have read Le Guin's book or have seen the PBS version, this A&E presentation has many redeeming qualities and does not fail on most levels.
When I get around to reading the book, perhaps I'll make a small addendum to this review. Primarily, I truly hope that I get a better understanding of the title. The quote above and the quote from the movie seem to hint at two disparate ideas. There's the ambiguity yet again…
All charges are summarily dismissed without prejudice. This version of Ursula Le Guin's novel is free to be enjoyed by everyone. Who's to say which reality is correct?
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• The Making of Lathe of Heaven
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