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Lathe of Heaven
Tonight's Feature Presentation

LATHE OF HEAVEN (2002)

Starring: Lukas Haas, James Caan, Lisa Bonet, David Strathairn, Sheila McCarthy

Written By: Alan Sharp, Ursula K. Le Guin (novel) Directed By: Philip Haas

The Short Version

A&E takes a crack at Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic story.

Tres art house, this is.

Lathe of Heaven looks beautiful, even in its minimalism.

Unfortunately, that minimalism also extends to the performances, which aren’t exactly passionate.

Lathe of Heaven is intellectually enticing, but doesn’t live up to its potential.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SWISS ALMOND CHEESE SPREAD.

It’s got flavor to it, light though it may be.  You know something about it should be full of holes, but you can’t quite see them.


Pairs Well With...

JAMESON IRISH WHISKY.

Of all the major popular spirits, this one has been shown to be the least consistent between bottles.  Maybe George Orr keeps changing its composition in his dreams?

“I don’t think you know what dreams are.”


Few movies that are based on books ever match their source material.  Indeed, many of the best scriptwriters who work on adapted screenplays don’t even try; instead, they reach into that original story for some central theme or idea and latch onto it at the expense of certain characters or themes or subplots, hoping to at least have gotten at some central essence that will translate well onto the screen.  The more charitable amongst them may even harbor hopes that their efforts will have succeeded well enough to inspire audiences to go back and read the original work to see what more is there.

Screen adaptation veteran Alan Sharp succeeds at least halfway with Lathe of Heaven.  By the time the end credits roll, thoughtful audiences will probably be more inclined than usual to go back and pick up a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel.  (A course of action I heartily recommend, by the way.)  As for the rest of it… the rest of it may depend on what George Orr dreamed last night, but Mr. Sharp can rest assured that the greatest failings of Lathe of Heaven have nothing to do with his screenplay.

Our story is that of George Orr (Lukas Haas, Inception), a young man living in some indeterminate future that’s still recognizable enough to be not too distant from the present.  George is a troubled fellow who currently scrapes by as a hospital orderly, a position he takes advantage of by stealing drugs from the supply stores.  Not that he’s any sort of dope dealer, mind; the drugs are for himself, and are intended to keep him from dreaming.  When he dreams, his dreams do something far worse than conjure up thoughts of a burned man with knives for fingertips (sorry; had to); instead, they conjure up changes in the real world itself.  If George dreams it, it happens, and that’s a power that he is deathly afraid to wield.

When he’s caught with the drugs, George’s friend Mannie (David Strathairn, LA Confidential) manages to convince the cops that George is only guilty of using Mannie’s authorization card to purchase them; since drugs are rationed, this is still an offense, but it’s a minor one compared to theft.  As a result, George is made to go to court, where a public defender named Heather (Lisa Bonet, High Fidelity) manages to get him off the hook with only the light sentence of being asked to see a court appointed shrink.

This shrink turns out to be a certain Dr. Haber (James Caan, Rollerball), and he’s pretty quick on the draw.  Though at first skeptical of George’s claims about being able to change the world through his dreams, Haber very quickly perceives the truth of it, and having done so, further perceives a way to make use of his patient’s remarkable powers for his own personal gain… and for the betterment of the world, of course…

When all is said and done, Lathe of Heaven isn’t exactly a bad movie.

Come on, folks, you know what word is next.  Say it with me.

“But…”

Lathe of Heaven isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t a good one, either.  However, unlike so many other movies that land in this particular valley, it’s also not terminally boring, despite the best efforts of the director and some of the cast to make it so.  It is, instead, somewhat interesting. 

More to the point, it’s interesting enough to get the viewer to ask questions, including that most beautiful of inquiries, “what if?”  It’s also interesting enough to get the viewer to wonder just what’s missing from the story, because it’s obvious that something is, even if it can’t quite be identified, and from there, to get the interested viewer to go find the original book.  If for no other reason, because of that, it’s hard to damn Lathe of Heaven as a completely boring movie, because boredom does not spark interest like this does.

It also has the whole “visual art” thing going for it.  In what may be a surprise to many people, Lathe of Heaven is extremely light on the special effects, to the point of “nothing more complex than a view screen or a matte background.”  (When George changes the world through his dreams, the audience gets a just a metaphorical picture of a jellyfish in motion.)  It’s also light on sets; most rooms seem remarkably empty save for a few pieces of furniture and a very small amount of art (which is generally a plot device when it’s there).  The minimalism is intentional; it’s meant to draw your attention to the characters without being distracted by laser shows.  (Think of it as the anti-George Lucas approach.)  As such, though there are definite changes to the scenery every time the world shifts, the one place where you really see the difference is in the costuming of the characters (again, drawing your attention to the people).  It’s an intriguing approach, and it is indeed quite beautifully realized in terms of production design.  Beyond the story itself, it is this combination of scenic minimalism and strong visual changes in costume and character makeup that keeps Lathe of Heaven interesting.

For alas, it sure isn’t the acting or the direction.

George Orr is a troubled man, to be sure, but Lukas Haas takes the whiny milquetoast act to extremes.  He turns his character into such a wimp that I guarantee that the biggest crack in your ability to suspend disbelief with Lathe of Heaven will come from the fact that this guy actually gets laid.  It’s not a matter of script; someone else could have read the same lines and just made the character a little emo.  Haas, however, proves to be one of the least compelling heroic leads in recent science fiction memory.

Even worse than Lukas Haas, however, is the dreadfully miscast Lisa Bonet, who completely sleepwalks through her role to such a degree that it literally sounds like she’s suppressing a yawn every time she talks.  Bonet is the polar opposite of engaging here, to the point where if this is the first thing you’ve seen her in, you’ll wonder not only how she got this part, but how she ever got a career.  (Answer: “The Cosby Show.”)  In Lathe of Heaven, Lisa Bonet is, simply put, the most dreadfully boring female lead that I can think of from any film in any genre that I’ve watched in the past several years.  At least if she’d gone to another extreme and stunk up the place, she might have at least displayed some life, but as it stands, she’s a department store mannequin that yawns out dialogue.

As such, the romantic chemistry between the characters of George and Heather that is absolutely vital to making the core of the story as set forth in this screenplay work is simply nonexistent.  There’s just no way to believe that these two would ever be attracted to each other, or to anyone, for that matter.  Indeed, there’s little in the performance of Haas to suggest that George would ever be able to talk to a girl out of anything but necessity, and nothing in the performance of Bonet to suggest that she’d ever think about something as energetic as sex.  Or waking up, even.

If ever two leads completely sabotaged the potential of a movie, here’s your case study.

At that point, blame must also fall on director Philip Haas (relation if any unknown) for letting it happen.  While it’s obvious that the entire goal here was for something minimalist and existential, having the cast turn it down to this level is simply inexcusable.  His dispassionate approach also sucks all of the momentum from the movie; the story itself is well paced, but the atmosphere is so sterile that whenever something happens, it feels forced, as though it’s only occurring because the script says so.  At that point, why not just put away the camera and have some beatniks read the script in a basement and be done with it?

Returning to the cast, James Caan also plays within the cloak of understatement; however, he at least remembers to act in the meantime.  That said, the quiet “no one’s pulse shall ever go over 60” atmosphere limits what he’s allowed to do.

Most compelling is David Strathairn, who at times seems to be acting outside the rest of the film, mirroring the mysterious and never quite explained nature of his character.  Strathairn is quiet, but never dull; indeed, he seems rather amused whenever he appears on camera, even during some of the film’s more serious moments.  He also manages to make Lukas Haas look better whenever he’s in the same room, as Haas’s performance seems to improve when he has Strathairn to bounce off of.

A shout out must also be given to Sheila McCarthy (Die Hard 2), who has the only other truly significant role in the film as Dr. Haber’s secretary.  Like Strathairn, she is much livelier than the rest of what’s around her, and also delivers an excellent performance.  Unfortunately, the script treats her character as little more than set dressing that talks, so there’s not much she can do to help salvage the movie.

And yet, for all of its flaws, Lathe of Heaven remains compelling at a certain level.  Though the minimalism is carried much too far when it’s made to bleed into a quash on characters being allowed to display any real passion, visually, the style is intriguing.  Though the two heroic leads seem determined to dully drive the story into the ground, the power of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work is too strong, and there’s just enough of it present in Alan Sharp’s screenplay to not let them have their way.  With another director and two different heroic leads, Lathe of Heaven has the potential to be a truly mind-blowing movie.  As it stands, it’s lucky to get away with “that was pretty” and “hey, what if…” and “maybe I should go buy the book.”

Bottom line, Lathe of Heaven is a TV-budget art house take on Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel that falls flat.  The potential is there, the visual style is interesting, but the rest of the direction is bland, and the two heroic leads are just plain dreadful.  If you find the movie for cheap it may be just worth the price for your curiosity (watch it on a rainy day), but your better bet is to just go for the book.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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