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Film / Phenomenon

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Phenomenon is a 1996 film, combining elements of drama, romance, and fantasy. It was directed by Jon Turteltaub and stars John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker, and Robert Duvall.

Its opening is not too different from a Super Hero Origin. George Malley (Travolta) is your average joe, an auto mechanic in a small city. On the evening of his 37th birthday, everything changes. He notices a strange flash of light which somehow grants him a genius-level intellect and telekinesis.

Having an altruistic streak, George decides to devote his new skills to the improvement of his small town. Initially the locals are amused and intrigued. But their amusement soon turns to fear, and draws the attention of the FBI.

This film provides examples of:

  • Beneficial Disease: George develops super-intelligence and even psychokinesis because of what is eventually discovered to be a terminal brain tumor.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Nate's wife is visibly pregnant as they arrive at the posthumous celebration for George.
  • Bittersweet Ending: George dies, but lives on in the memories of the friendly scientist, the town, and all his friends.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with a birthday party for George. Though the second one is posthumous as people celebrate his memory.
  • Comical Translation: There's an inverted Prank Translation. Nate has a crush on a Portuguese housekeeper but does not speak Portuguese, so he asks George, who does, to teach him some phrases related to asking her to clean his house. The ones George teaches him are polite, but very romantic phrases having nothing to do with housekeeping.
  • Cursed with Awesome: George gains extraordinary mental powers as well as telekinesis all caused by a brain cancer that activates normally dormant regions of the brain. His first big problem is finding out why he got this power — since it scares the locals, it makes his personal life harder than it used to be (he's from a small town). Once he finds out, he takes it much better — yes, he takes a brain cancer that kills him in less than two years, and the inconveniences that go with treating such a cancer, much more peacefully than ostracism.
  • Derailed for Details: Somebody asks George how old a person would be now if they were born on the 5th of March 1987 (or was it the 7th of July 1976? No, it was the 28th of October 1928...) Anyway, he asks a bunch of questions, the last one being "Where was he born?" The exasperated questioner asks what that has to do with it. "Well, if he were born in New York City he'd be..." and gives the age right down to the minute. He never does explain, though, how a person's gender affects their age.
  • Everyone Knows Morse: Nate Pope is a HAM operator, so he should know Morse code for that reason, but George not only knows Morse code (for no reason) and can decipher a very fast message that Whitaker picks up on his HAM radio. George has a brain tumor which rewires his brain, allowing him to learn things easily. He could have picked up Morse code off-camera.
  • For Science!: The neurologist George meets towards the end wants to study George by taking a peek inside his brain while he's still alive to learn what makes him tick and how his newfound mental prowess and powers work. George refuses, and despite having initially declared that the choice was George's to make, the doctor has him declared mentally unfit and makes the decision for him.
  • Heroic BSoD: George briefly touches upon this when most of the town starts to shun him. Learning about his terminal brain tumor on the other hand barely fazes him.
  • Inexplicable Language Fluency: Downplayed. After a UFO encounter, George gains a form of superintelligence where he can learn complicated tasks and subjects quickly, to the point where he's able to fluently speak Portuguese after reading an English-to-Portuguese dictionary for twenty minutes. This was foreshadowed in an earlier scene where after usually fumbling to speak Spanish, he's suddenly able to speak it perfectly, to the point that his Hispanic coworker half-seriously declares that it's better than his.
  • Informed Ability: We don't really get to know the scientific details of George's intelligence. It comes mostly from fast-reading.
  • Instant Expert: George's hyper-intelligence allows him to do this, such as learning to speak Portuguese by reading a dictionary during the space of a car ride.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: George remains friendly all the way, but he starts to scare people by being too smart, compared to them and himself before the "flash".
  • Intimate Haircut: Happens with George and Lace. Subverted, as they don't do anything until much later in the movie.
  • Language of Love: Played with. George persuades his best friend to hire a Portuguese woman (a very pretty young widow) as a housekeeper. George records some Portuguese phrases for his friend to learn, claiming that they're phrases like "When can you start?" - in reality, they're romantic comments about her beauty. The woman does, in fact, speak English perfectly well, and George knows it but his friend doesn't find out until they actually meet; George is just trying to hook them up. It works.
  • Messianic Archetype: George is clearly trying to use all his ideas to make the world a better place, and the closest he comes to Insufferable Genius is when he's being detained, questioned, and tested.
  • Mind over Matter: George's telekinesis.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: George's best friend Nate asks him to teach him some Portuguese so he can hire a (beautiful) Brazilian lady as his maid. George uses a tape recorder to give English and Portuguese "translations" for sentences like, "Can you start on Monday?". But the Portuguese sentences actually mean "You have beautiful eyes", and so on. At the end of the movie Nate and the lady are expecting a baby.
  • My Skull Runneth Over: The same medical condition granting George his intellectual powers is killing him.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Lampshaded by Nate when the Berkeley scientist asks about quakes: "Oh, that!" In order, George impresses people by: playing chess and winning once, correcting his mistake with a rabbit, learning Spanish, winning again at chess, reading 2-3 books a day about anything, experimenting with solar energy, experimenting with a new natural fuel, breaking several army codes, predicting earthquakes, and learning Portuguese.
  • 90% of Your Brain: George's power is eventually described as "more area of active brain use than anybody ever tested".
  • Oscar Bait: Phenomenon is a dramatic fantasy film directed by Jon Turtletaub and starring John Travolta, about an ordinary man who, for reasons that remain mysterious until near the end of the film, acquires unusual intelligence and telekinetic powers. The film garnered some controversy from critics who saw it as alleged propaganda for the Church of Scientology (of which John Travolta is a longtime follower), but Travolta's performance was widely praised and considered by some to be Oscar-worthy. Ultimately, he ended up not being nominated for an Oscar for the film.
  • The Patient Has Left the Building: When the neurologist overrules George's refusal to let him examine his still-living brain, Nate and Lace help him escape from the hospital. By the time the officials catch up with him, George has died.
  • Rage Against the Reflection: George is angry at who he has become and yells at a mirror. When angrily gesturing at his reflection, he inadvertently smashes it with his telekinesis.
  • Reaching Towards the Audience: The movie's poster has George reaching his hand out as if to aim his telekinetic ability.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Doc delivers an awesome one to patrons at a bar who were badmouthing George.
  • Rousseau Was Right: The vast majority of people who oppose George are scared, or only following orders. The former seem to come around by the end, and at least one of the latter subtly helps him by redirecting the search for him after he's escaped.
  • Screw Learning, I Have Phlebotinum!: George Malley has increased learning & memorization capacity, but cannot answer questions about things he hasn't read about.
  • Sleep Learning: George gives his friend Nate an audiotape of Portuguese phrases like "What are your skills?" and "When can you start?" so he can hire Ella, a Portuguese woman as a maid. George secretly slips in phrases like "You have beautiful eyes", in order to play matchmaker between the two. By the end of the movie, Nate and Ella are expecting their first child.
  • The Sleepless: One of the first foreshadowings that there's something wrong with his brain.
  • The Smart Guy: George and, to a lesser extent, Doc Brunder, who becomes overshadowed (and overawed) due to his abilities.
  • Smart People Play Chess:
    • One of the first clues of George's newfound intelligence is that he starts winning chess games against Doc Brunder. Though the first clue was mostly because Doc was just teaching him chess the night before, when a day later, he expertly beat him in said game without really paying attention.
    • Brought up again later when he beat him repeatedly, just to confirm that Smart People Really Play Chess. Doc notices how smart he has become.
  • Sudden Intelligence: George is an amiable not-too-bright handyman who achieves phenomenal intelligence after being hit by a glowing ball from space.
  • Super-Intelligence: The main point of the movie. George becomes super smart, which at first is a matter of celebration until the dark reason for the sudden intellect is later discovered
  • Super-Speed Reading: George is seen reading a book simply by flipping through pages. At one point he claims to read 4 or 5 books a day.
  • The Topic of Cancer: One night, the main character sees a flash of unearthly light, hears a strange sound, and falls unconscious. When he wakes up, he's got super-intelligence and even psychic powers. Turns out he's got a massive cancerous tumor in his brain which, by complete coincidence, happens to enhance certain functions by pushing against rarely activated parts of it. The flash of light was an epileptic hallucination brought about by the cancer. Oh, and he's also dying.
  • They Would Cut You Up: The government is almost totally upfront about wanting to do this to George. Because George's mind is working at near 100% efficiency, it takes him no time at all to realize that what they're not saying is that the exploratory surgery they want to do would kill him, and that they think they'd get less data doing the same surgery after his death.
  • Touched by Vorlons: The dancing lights in the sky that descend on George before his powers emerge are certainly reminiscent of flying saucers. Subverted, as they're explicitly hallucinations brought on by his brain tumor.