Charly (1968)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/20/05 15:08:39

"Boston, Science, Fiction, and Film: Custom made for the Boston SF Film Fest"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON SCIENCE FICTION FILM FESTIVAL: There was initially some griping about the inclusion of Charly on the SF/30 message board about the selections were announced. For October Sky and Field of Dreams, I can understand, but Charly is a pretty decent science fiction movie.

It is, however, the kind of science fiction that doesn't exactly advertise its genre. The original short story "Flowers for Algernon" (later expanded into a novel) appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which as a magazine tends to focus more on the literary aspects of the genre, such as characterization and writing style, as opposed to the big ideas and larger-than-life adventure of, say, Analog. Because of this, some will say that movies like this aren't really science fiction, but dramas, as if a story can't be both. And despite a story is more directly about scientific research than many SF movies, it is undeniable that Charly is an actor's showcase, less concerned with the ramifications of a new discovery than how it affects Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson).

Charly is a friendly, good-natured man who is severely mentally retarded. His co-workers make great sport of his deficiencies, and though he goes to night school to try and learn to read, it doesn't take. One of his teachers, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom), tells him about an experiment being attempted by some local scientists to increase the intelligence of mice, but which is almost ready for human trials. Charly volunteers, and although there doesn't seem to be immediate improvement, he soon blows past average intelligence to become a genius. Unfortunately, one of the things his enhanced intelligence soon makes clear is that the effects probably will not be permanent.

This is, literally, Cliff Robertson's movie. Having played the character in a 1961 television anthology adaptation, he purchased the film rights to ensure he got to play the character on the big screen. Robertson pulls from the standard bag of tricks as the retarded Charly, but unlike most actors playing a mentally handicapped character, he has to change his portrayal by degrees - Charly doesn't become smarter like a switch being flipped, and Robertson makes it a smooth transition. He also recognizes that no longer being retarded doesn't make Charly normal; he still has to learn how to conduct himself socially. His bitterness and anger when he learns that he will regress, knowing what that means, is palpable.

Ms. Bloom has a tricky role, too - Alice initially views Charly as a child, and isn't quite sure how to react when he starts to show the capabilities and desires of a man. The idea of reciprocating his romantic and sexual attraction at first appalls her, and then frightens her as his mind surpasses hers. She, at least, has some feelings about what is happening to Charly, unlike the scientists overseeing the project (Lilia Skala and Leon Janney), who are something of a caricature of the unfeeling academics.

Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Ralph Nelson do a very good job of creating a movie out of a story that doesn't have a great many events. Another reason one might not necessarily think of Charly and movies like it as science fiction is that one tends to expect a certain amount of visual innovation, but Nelson carefully eschews that in order to further ground the story in our own world. Well, except for one semi-psychedelic montage sequence that more than anything else dates the movie as having been produced in 1968 (and is quite frankly alarming after nineteen straight hours of movies). It does look very nice, though, filmed on location in Boston with Technicolor's "Techniscope" process.

Indeed, that location shooting gives the lie to certain marathoners' fears of this movie being inappropriate - if this movie isn't ideal fodder for a Boston Science-Fiction Film Festival, what is?

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.