The Lathe of Heaven Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000

The Lathe of Heaven, starring Kevin Conway and Bruce Davison

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 high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

For two decades, it has been the Holy Grail for almost an entire generation of science fiction fans. Named among the top 100 greatest works of science fiction by Entertainment Weekly magazine, its return to the public eye has been long anticipated, helped in part by the devoted efforts of its fans, who lobbied for its re-release in public pleas, grassroots Internet campaigns, and tireless letter-writing crusades. And though it did not bask in the same level of mainstream popularity that George Lucas' "Star Wars" franchise experienced, it has made an indelible mark in the annals of science fiction filmmaking nonetheless.

It was back in 1980 that "The Lathe of Heaven", a modestly budgeted made-for-television movie based on the best-selling novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, made its first and only appearance on North American public television. Though it was never seen again, "The Lathe of Heaven" developed a cult following, even among those who never had a chance to see it when it was initially aired. For the past twenty years, the only means to view this sci-fi masterpiece was via poor-quality bootlegged videotapes, often sold at outrageous prices at sci-fi conventions or on eBay. However, this all changed in June of this year, with the long-awaited rebroadcast of "The Lathe of Heaven" by public broadcasting television stations across North America, and the promise of the film's availability (digitally remastered no less) on VHS and DVD by the fall.

George has a run-in with an alien

For the uninitiated, "The Lathe of Heaven" takes place in Portland, Oregon in the year 2002. Its main character, an insignificant working class man named George Orr (Bruce Davison who appears in this summer's "The X-Men" movie), is plagued by 'effective dreaming', where his dreams literally come true. He first learns of his unique ability at the age of seventeen, when he dreams of his aunt dying in a fiery car crash. When he wakes up the following morning, he finds that his aunt, who had been staying at the house only the night before, actually died in a car crash days before. Unfortunately, nobody, other than George, ever notices the change, and over the years, George grows up suffering in silence, horrified by the immense power of his dreams and nightmares.

My dreams change everything that comes before them, and nobody knows it but me!
George, I need you to understand something. There is a difference between what you dream about and what you do.
But not for me... it's the same thing! And I can't control...
What you can control is all this guilt and anxiety, which is what we'll be working on together in the next few sessions.

At the start of the film, a 30-year old George has been given a court order to attend psychiatric therapy following an accidental overdose on prescription drugs. This is where he comes into contact with oneirologist Dr. Bill Haber (Kevin Conway, who also played Kahless the Unforgettable in "Star Trek: The Next Generation"), a specialist in sleep disorders and dreams. With the use of hypnosis and a brain wave regulator called the 'Augmentor', Haber begins treatment aimed at helping George feel more at ease with his dreams. However, Haber is astonished to find that George's dreams actually can reshape reality.

At first, Haber's experimentation with his patient's unique ability is limited in scope, such as changing a picture on the wall. However, with each session, Haber becomes more ambitious as he directs George to dream of a Portland where the sun is always shining, or of the Haber Institute of Oneirology, both of which appear in the new post-dream reality. Seeing that he is being used instead of being cured, George tries to find a way to switch therapists. Unfortunately, he runs into brick walls at every turn when dealing with the state bureaucracy of the future, and even the lawyer he hires, Heather LeLache (Margaret Avery, who went on to appear in "The Color Purple"), seems powerless to stop Haber's 'treatments'.

Your attempts to use my dreams to make the world a better place will destroy it!

The results of Dr. Haber's attempts to eliminate racism

Undaunted, the well-intentioned Haber becomes even more daring in the use of George's abilities, as he directs George to dream away monumental human problems, such as overpopulation, war, and racism. Unfortunately, Haber's attempts to rectify the problems of the world end up backfiring, necessitating further sessions of 'effective dreaming' to solve the troubles brought on by the previous ones.

Filmed in 1979 by New York PBS affiliate WNET's Experimental TV Lab project, "The Lathe of Heaven" was the first made-for-television movie in the history of American public television, and was intended to be the first installment in an anthology series of science fiction films. Unfortunately, after its television debut, the production fell into legal limbo due to the use of the Beatle's tune "With a Little Help from My Friends", and was never aired again before the network's rights expired in 1988. WNET, who saw the reacquisition of broadcast rights and the settlement of any outstanding legal issues as too large an investment, then allowed the film to gather dust in their archives.

George's 'dream state'

Meanwhile, the campaign to bring "The Lathe of Heaven" back on the air continued to gain momentum, making it the most requested program in PBS history. In addition to requests from fans, the network received requests for screening copies from two of the film's more high-profile admirers, Tom Hanks ("The Green Mile") and Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld"). The issue finally came to a head in 1997, when an open letter from PBS management was posted on a fan web site, explaining the reasons why the network was not re-broadcasting the film. The letter then generated a deluge of e-mail (a stack the size of a telephone book) to PBS management, in protest of their decision. With such an overwhelming response, WNET realized that "The Lathe of Heaven" was more than just a passing fad, and promptly invested in the arduous process of reacquiring broadcast rights so that it could host this 'television event' once again. This included negotiating separate agreements for everyone involved in the original production, including author Le Guin, and inserting a new cover version of the Beatles song that had caused all the legal headaches in the first place. Thus, "The Lathe of Heaven" finally made it back on the air, just in time for its twentieth anniversary.

So what was it about this made-for-television film that struck a chord with audiences? What was it about "The Lathe of Heaven" that would make science fiction fans tirelessly lobby a network for two decades? Certainly, it wasn't for the special effects-- made on a paltry $250,000 budget, the production values rival that of a "Dr. Who" episode, and most of the film's 'special effects' were quite obvious, such as lighting and camera tricks, plastic-and-styrofoam aliens, and spaceships that were 'painted' into scenes. And it certainly wasn't for the film's twangy synthesizer-based musical score, which was jarring at times. No, the endearing quality of "The Lathe of Heaven" was in the story, which remained faithful to that of the original novel.

Listen carefully, George. You and I are about to embark upon a magnificent collaboration-- we're going to make history today. Using your gift, I'm going to do what no politician, no scientist, no philosopher has ever done. I'm going to make the whole world right.

Aside from the obvious metaphysical issues of existence touched on by the film, at the heart of "The Lathe of Heaven" is a cautionary tale that has endured the ages, the type with the moral that says, "Be careful what you wish for". George and Dr. Haber are two contrasting characters-- whereas George is passive and does his best to adapt to what the system throws at him, Haber is an aggressive man who takes an active role in changing things that don't suit him. Le Guin considers "The Lathe of Heaven" to espouse a Taoist viewpoint, which essentially favors being in harmony with the environment, since expending effort to change it will only make things worse-- which is exactly what happens in the story.

You can't play God-- you change one thing and everything changes!

Like a man who has been granted three wishes by a genie, Haber becomes intoxicated by the potential for George's ability to serve as a 'quick fix' for the numerous problems that plague the world. Despite his good intentions, he quickly learns that there are unexpected and serious consequences for each great leap forward. When he cures Portland of its rain problem, it creates a drought and the need for strict water rationing among the population. When he uses George's dreams to resolve overpopulation, he unleashes a plague that inadvertently pushes the nations of the world closer to war. And his attempts to bring peace on Earth result in an alien invasion, prompting the nations of the world to put aside their differences in the face of a common enemy. Of course, Haber refuses to believe that the unintended effects are his own doing, and deflects the blame onto George's shoulders. From Haber's perspective, the rationale behind the decision is sound, and it is in the execution where the problem lies.

Like all good science fiction, "The Lathe of Heaven" is a mere reflection of the human condition, allowing to us to see ourselves from a different perspective. Human history is littered with individuals and societies as zealous as Haber, whose good intentions and desire for easy solutions have unleashed unexpected 'side effects', often with serious consequences. DDT, thalidomide, the atomic bomb, strip mining, and even the Y2K bug are examples of 'quick fixes' that have had unintended social, political, economic, and ecological impacts. In "The Lathe of Heaven", Le Guin has exaggerated the ability of man to reshape his environment, yet the underlying principle still remains the same-- we must temper our desire to reshape the world with caution and a full understanding of what the possible ramifications could be.

Hey Haber...
I was just thinking... wouldn't it be funny if I wasn't the only one who could dream effectively? What if everybody could do it, and reality was being pulled out from under us all the time... and we didn't even know it? Well, it was just a thought.
I'll sleep on it.

"The Lathe of Heaven" debuted some twenty years ago, and remained one of the best-kept secrets in the history of science fiction filmmaking-- that is, until recently. Despite its low-budget roots, "The Lathe of Heaven" holds up remarkably well, and is still as intriguing and thought provoking as it was back in 1980. It is one of the few great works of science fiction that will stand the test of time, and thanks to the efforts of a generation of fans, this masterpiece will be available for the next one.

Images courtesy of WNET. All rights reserved.

MediaCircus Navigation

Search | Movie Reviews | Movie Store | Home | Genre TV | This New SoHo | New Economy | Resume | Creative Portfolio | Love in Fall Productions | Links | E-mail