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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:

  • Award-Bait Song: Change The World by Eric Clapton and Dance With Life (The Brilliant Light) by Bryan Ferry.
  • Babies Ever After: Nate; see below.
  • Beneficial Disease: George develops super-intelligence and even psychokinesis because of what is eventually discovered to be a terminal brain tumor.
  • Bittersweet Ending: George dies, but lives on in the memories of the friendly scientist, the town, and all his friends.
  • Bookends: The film begins and ends with a birthday party for George. Though the second one is posthumous as people celebrate his memory.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • Super Intelligence: The main point of the movie.
  • 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.
  • 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.