Review: ‘Lathe of Heaven’

A talky remake of PBS' 1980 pic that floundered thereafter in rights-clearing hell, A&E's "Lathe of Heaven" has a hard time living up to the cult status afforded the original.

A talky remake of PBS’ 1980 pic that floundered thereafter in rights-clearing hell, A&E’s “Lathe of Heaven” has a hard time living up to the cult status afforded the original. Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 sci-fi vision of a lobotomized future and, specifically, one man’s therapy gone awry is still provocative on the surface — what could happen if someone controlled our dreams? — but the execution here ranges from low-key to lackluster to downright boring.

Certainly one of the hippest public TV presentations of all time, the first “Heaven,” starring Bruce Davison (he’s a co-producer this time around), came and went until an Internet campaign tried to revive it in the 1990s. By that time, everyone’s contract had to be reworked, and it was actually the use of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” that held up a re-airing until it was shown as a 20th anniversary special, also on PBS, in 2000.

What’s all the fuss about? For one thing, Le Guin’s imagery is unassuming and strangely beautiful, and it’s the best aspect of this rendition, directed and written by Philip Haas and Alan Sharp, respectively. Staked with charcoal gray tones, attractive fashions and modernist architecture, the life established is plausible and unpretentious, and it’s absent the overload of gimmicky gadgets. It’s also very big on Big Brother; subways and streets are filled with inert people who watch ubiquitous monitors full of politicians’ empty soliloquies.

“Heaven” zeroes in on George Orr (Lukas Haas), a frightened 26-year-old who overdosed after using someone else’s government-issued pharmacy card. Deemed a criminal, Orr visits attorney Heather Lelache (Lisa Bonet), who oversees a punishment that consists of weekly visits to clinical psychologist William Haber (James Caan).

An odd man who comes off as warm and fuzzy but evolves into something more dastardly, Haber, whose dowdy assistant Penny (Sheila McCarthy) constantly alters her appearance, convinces Orr to trust him as he dives into his mind via an “augmentor,” a mammoth machine that could double as a souped-up dentist’s chair.

Intending to modify his own existence through Orr’s subconscious, he starts small, hypnotizing Orr into fantasizing about a horse in a field. When Orr wakes up, a mural of Lady Godiva is mounted on the wall. Next visit, Orr hallucinates, comes to, and there’s a picture window with a view of a snowcapped mountain. Haber eventually uses this mad-scientist strategy for more profound changes, the most disturbing of which is his rise from mid-level MD to famous researcher.

The visuals rescue this “Heaven,” a telepic that has very little personality. While Le Guin’s intentions remain — everything is cold and distant — the characters have been dulled down to the max. Even toward the final few scenes, when a confrontation might break out between Orr and Haber, the narrative just fizzles.

While Haas (not related to the helmer) looks the part — he’s tall, with a gaunt stature and puzzled expressions — his role is rather stiff and uninteresting. Ditto Bonet and Caan, who don’t do much to spice things up, and David Strathairn, who’s almost unnecessary as Orr’s friend-doorman. It’s unfortunate that the foursome on which every twist and turn fall are so blah.

Tops among the ace tech credits are Liz Vandal’s costuming and Sylvain Gingras’ art direction. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is, as always, appropriately atmospheric.

Lathe of Heaven

USA, Sun. Sept. 8, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Montreal by A&E and Alliance Atlantis in association with Baumgarten Merims Prods. Executive producers, Craig Baumgarten, Allen Sabinson; producer, Mark Winemaker; co-producer, Bruce Davison; director, Philip Haas; writer, Alan Sharp, based on the book by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Crew

Camera, Pierre Mignot; editor, Jean-Francois Bergeron; production designer; Sylvain Gingras; costumes, Liza Vandal; music, Angelo Badalamenti; casting, Avy Kaufman. 2 HOURS.

Cast

Walter Haber - James Caan George Orr - Lukas Haas Heather Lelache - Lisa Bonet Mannie - David Strathairn Penny - Sheila McCarthy Judge - Serge Houde
With: Suzanne Desautels, Belinda Hum, Tetsuro Shigematsu.
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