All of my friends keep asking me, “can you please do a showdown between these two ‘magical’ movies?” Well, by golly, I believe it’s time! You don’t need to tell me that these movies suck. I already know. I bet you’d agree with me that they’re at least memorable. “Powder” (1995) and “Phenomenon” (1996) were very similar movies as they follow inspirational people that are ultimately tragic. Firstly, lets get the synopses out of the way.
“Phenomenon” chronicles the journey of how a simple, small town mechanic (George O’Malley), who after witnessing a light show on his 37th birthday, shows amazing levels of intelligence and even telekinesis. Of course the movie is more than that as it examines a town’s perception of his powers and are afraid of what he can do. George even goes into seclusion but then shows up to a town fair to explain his powers and how he uses his intellect for good. Our protagonist is then told that he has a tumor and becomes the tragic figure. If the town would’ve come to understand George, the human race would be better for it.
“Powder” examines how a town harasses a boy just based solely on his appearance (albino skin). Later, we come to find that this boy, Jeremy “Powder” Reed, has an extremely high intellect, telepathy and paranormal powers. The film (just like “Phenomenon”) questions our understanding of the limits of the mind as well as our capacity for cruelty. After facing much discrimination, Powder’s friends state that they can find a place where he’ll be better understood but Powder decides to run off during a storm and turn into pure energy instead. It’s put forth that Powder is on a completely different level of thinking/knowing than the society in which he has to live with. Society was too cruel for him to endure and he found a way to not be in it.
In deciding which one of these masterpieces becomes victor, I find it best to consider the following factors:
1. Story/Message – The films have a deeper meaning and mean to place the audience outside of itself.
2. Performances – John Travolta and Sean Patrick Flannery headline with both movies having memorable supporting roles.
3. Powers & Abilities – Both have some pretty cool moves but which is more desirable?
4. Rotten Tomatoes / Box Office – Critic consensus and Total Domestic Box Office
5. Movie Music – What? You don’t believe in the power of Movie Music?!
Jeremy Reed was born from a woman who was struck by lightning who died giving birth and ultimately given up by his father to then be raised by his grandparents. Jeremy was shuttered from society until his grandfather passed away and this leads to him being labeled a ward of the state and a child psychologist takes him to a boys home and enrolls him into high school.
Having albino skin, Jeremy is easily made an outcast and threatened by fellow students like John Box who views him as a freak. Even the sheriff’s deputy, Harley, is appalled by his presence. He, however, does strike up a romance with a local but her parents prevent her from being seen with him.
As if things were not hard enough for Jeremy, he uses his powers to show what mankind is doing to itself and what mankind is truly capable of. Examples of this include making others aware of the gravity of their actions (the shooting of a deer scene, helping a dying wife communicate with her worried husband) and helping others heal.
Many knock on the movie as it’s too ‘on the nose’ but I believe that the film’s stance is so one sided that ambiguity is only left to the fate of the hero. Is the movie cheesy? Without a doubt. The plausibility of the characters that surround Powder are dubious and the bigotry in a small town notion is highly amplified.
George O’Malley is known in a small town as the friendly mechanic. After celebrating his birthday at a bar he witnesses a light and then becomes blinded by it and passes out. Awaking, he begins exhibiting high levels of intelligence: learning the Portuguese language in 30 minutes, reads many books a day, develops ideas, predicts earthquakes, and even develops the abilities to move objects with his mind.
His abilities even get the FBI interested in him and a seismologist inquiring as to how he can predict seismic activity. After relentless questioning from the authorities, George tries to keep a low profile as the townsfolk even begin to fear what he is capable of. He then decides to showcase his abilities, the books he’s read, more on how he functions and that his true intentions are to help people.
He collapses during a showcase of his abilities and awakens to find out that he has a tumor and a short time to live. After initial tension with the FBI, he is given peace to live out his final days with the woman he loves and her children.
Who has the edge? Phenomenon. Similarities aside, the Travolta drama is simply more provocative and more plausible. Moreover, George O’Malley leaves his town forever changed for the better whereas this is simply not the case as it seems hopeless for Powder to even try.
Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints, Dexter) stars as Jeremy Reed in one of his first roles. He is actually quite effective as the innocent Powder. He is surrounded by the likes of Mary Steenburgen, the underrated Lance Henricksen and the great Jeff Goldblum. I must say that most of the supporting acting is mediocre except that of Jeff Goldblum. I’m probably bias as I’ve always been engaged by all of his performances. In this film, he plays a a quirky physics teacher that relays to Powder that he has supernatural powers and the highest IQ in mankind.
Of course these supporting characters are forever changed by Powder as they see something more in themselves but the town is not changed and it’s only the audience that hopes more from humankind.
Pre-creepy John Travolta is charming as the town’s mechanic and has interesting friendships with Forest Whitaker and Robert Duvall. Funny enough, Whitaker went on to join Travolta again in another sh*tty movie, Battlefield Earth in the year 2000. Kyra Sedgwick is extremely bland as the closed off, divorced mother of two that Travolta attempts to charm. What is probably the most effective of the movie is ‘experts’ in specialized fields reacting to Travolta’s George O’Malley character. This adds to the great feats that O’Malley accomplishes — rescuing a lost girl, deciphering morse code, predicting earthquakes, etc.
Who has the edge? Phenomenon. There are simply more colorful characters and performances in the film that not even the great Jeff Goldblum can overcome!
3. Powers & Abilities
Jeremy Reed has some pretty major powers here. Telepathy gives him the ability to read minds, his brain is electromagnetically charged which causes electrical objects to react abnormally around him and he can create energy in the form of sending electrical charges from his body. He needs to stay inside during thunderstorms for good reason.
George O’Malley gets blinded by the light (♫♫♪♪) and develops powers which include the ability to absorb vast amounts of information easily, creating brilliant ideas, the ability to detect seismic waves and telekinesis. All of this goes to his ‘head’ as he eventually learns that this is all due to the brain tumor he has.
Who has the edge? Powder. Reed has telepathy and anyone can use that to an advantage and let’s not forget that he can manipulate electrical energy in order to move objects (quasi-telekinesis). On top of that, he can act as an AED (automated external defibrillator) effectively applying electrical therapy to establish an effective heart rhythm and save someone’s life.
4. Rotten Tomatoes / Box Office
Look, I know both of these movies essentially suck but they are no where near worst movie ever status. Believe you me! I’ve seen many that can claim that title.
RT – 47% – total of 19 reviews
Box Office: $30 million
RT – 50% – total of 34 reviews
Box Office : $104 million
Who has the edge? Phenomenon.
5. Movie Music
“Powder” was often elevated by its powerful music by legendary Jerry Goldsmith. A score that serves the background of its main character is important, especially when there are scenes where his abilities are on full display, not to mention everyone’s reactions. The main theme of the movie is one of mystery and discovery and serves the film very nicely.
Then there’s Thomas Newman’s score in “Phenomenon”. Newman is probably best known for his work in “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” and his score here is nothing short of amazing. It perfectly captures the small town and moments of curiosity and self reflection.
Who has the edge? Phenomenon. Goldsmith is average here, especially when looking back at all of his much better work. I can’t see “Phenomenon” without hearing Newman’s score.
Overall Win: Phenomenon. You know I start these ‘showdowns’ thinking it is going to be really close but that simply wasn’t the case with these memorable, cheesy movies.