Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 by Kevin Kelly
Let’s face it. As far as superpowers go, the ability to move things with your brain is pretty awesome. Sure, flying is cool, turning invisible would have fun benefits, and super-strength could always come in handy. Plus it’s a lot cooler than all the “problem” superpowers, like having your entire body burst into flame, turning into some disgusting creature, or having your power be that you’re just extremely fat, and bouncy, like the Blob.
It’s just not the first power that leaps into people’s minds when they get asked, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Maybe because that other stuff is too sexy. However, it’s the real thinking man or woman who chooses telekinesis, because once you realize the full potential of that power, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. As the telekinetic Push opens up this weekend, read on for an ultra-brief history of telekinesis, and find out how it’s affected cinematic history.
Telekinesis and Psychokinesis
“Telekinesis” was a term coined in 1890 by Russian researcher Alexander N. Aksakof, and in 1914 American author Henry Holy came up with the term “psychokinesis,” although at the time they meant the same thing. Telekinesis was literally “distance moving,” while psychokinesis was “mind moving,” and they are often abbreviated TK and PK respectively.
However in more modern history, telekinesis has come to cover a whole range of mental abilities, like teleportation, phasing through objects, transmutation, and so on. In 2004 physicist Eric Davis wrote in an Air Force research report Teleportation Physics Study (!) that “telekinesis is a form of psychokinesis.” Good to know the the Air Force is staying on top of things and checking out brain powers.
For our purposes we’ll be focusing on telekinesis, which means Drew Barrymore and Firestarter will have to be left out. Sorry, Drew. You’ll just have to wait until we do a GeekBomb on fire in the movies. Luckily, there are still tons of movies just based on telekinesis, and check out the ones below that have had an impact on my non-powered brain. Just a few days ago I stared at a pencil and tried to move it… and the only thing that happened was me developing a headache.
In 1968 a much younger (and less leathery, yet still tan) George Hamilton starred in this movie about a group of scientists trying to develop mental powers. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Frank M. Robinson, and while it delves into the realm of mind-control, there are plenty of TK moments, including a creepy scene where the scientists sit at a roundtable and try to move a sheet of paper.
While this isn’t Oscar-winning stuff, it does feature a decent performance from Hamilton who does battle against a TK-powered opponent, and also stars Michael Rennie of Klaatu and The Day The Earth Stood Still fame. Plus if you’ve ever wanted to see someone get killed by a centrifuge, this is your chance. It also features an excellent soundtrack from Miklós Rózsa, who actually did win several Oscars. Just not for this movie.
This 1976 classic, based on the Stephen King novel, features a young Sissy Spacek as a girl who finds out she has telekinetic powers while in high school. However, instead of becoming a superhero, she takes a slightly different path. It just goes to show you that it really doesn’t pay to be a bully, especially if the kid you’re tormenting has the ability to force cars off the road and make knives fly through the air.
A couple of interesting notes about this film: it starred John Travolta and the Greatest American Hero, William Katt, who auditioned for the role of Luke Skywalker around the time this movie came out. It spawned a god-awful sequel in 1999 with The Rage: Carrie 2, and an equally terrible TV movie remake in 2002 that was meant to serve as the pilot for a series that thankfully never happened. There was even a musical based on Carrie in 1988 they flopped equally as hard. I guess it’s tough being a telekinetic teenage girl.
While the Force is meant to be an ethereal, spiritual feeling that guides your decisions and helps you achieve zen, the real cool part of it is moving things around by just thinking about it, including choking people and listing an entire X-Wing out of a muck-ridden swamp. Whenever most kids stare at something (like my pencil) and try to move it with their mind, they’re usually trying to channel the Force.
Lucas later revealed that the Force was imbued by tiny little cells in your bloodstream called midi-chlorians (blurgh), which probably crushed the hopes and dreams of children everywhere. I wonder how many little kids asked their doctors to check their midi-chlorian levels when they had their blood tested after The Phantom Menace came out.
Not content with just having directed Carrie, Brian de Palma followed it up with this 1978 movie about… another girl with telekinetic power. This time however it’s Amy Irving, who was also in Carrie, that played the girl who has powers including telekinesis. However, she also has a power that causes other people to bleed when they touch her. Talk about killing your social life. I’d say the X-Men’s Rogue has it easy in comparison.
Of course, the warped scientists want to tap her potential and turn her physic abilities into a weapon. Isn’t that always the case? Although you have to admit, soldiers who can toss things around with their mind and make people bleed by touching them would be pretty disturbing, and enemy armies would probably just give up. The ending sequence where Irving explodes John Cassavetes from the inside is pretty nifty, and it’s not a bad horror film at all.
The Medusa Touch
This telekinetic film also came out in 1978, and stars Richard Burton as a failed writer who seems so angry at his literary detractors that he causes a plane crash, the loss of a manned spacecraft, and causes an entire cathedral to crash down on the heads of people inside. Talk about not being able to take a little criticism. He’s able to use his telekinetic powers at extremely great distances, and seems to be want help although that never comes.
It’s based on the novel by Peter Van Greenaway, and actually holds up pretty well despite its age. Great performances from Lee Remmick and Derek Jacobi round out the cast, and the climax with Burton seemingly dead in a hospital bed, only to have his eyes spring to life is pretty creepy. There are no exploding bodies or knives whirling across the screen, but it’s probably the best representation of ultra-powerful telekinesis in film.
Finally, the lighter side of telekinesis starts to emerge in movies. Chevy Chase starred in this 1981 comedy about a man who develops telekinesis after some radioactive green goo gets spilled on him. Unlikes his TK-powered movie predecessors, he doesn’t use his powers to kill people, but instead to humiliate a guy (Dabney Coleman) who is trying to romance his ex-wife. If you’ve ever wanted to see Dabney Coleman butt-naked, this is the movie for you.
While there are plenty of things flying through the air in this movie, there’s a pretty disturbing scene at a restaurant where Chase causes a guy to develop a pretty serious nosebleed. Somehow, that scene has always stayed with me and grossed me out, and I constantly worry that I’ll develop a nosebleed that squirts like a fountain. Ultimately, Chase’s powers get transferred into his maid, played by Nell Carter, so thankfully there never was a Modern Problems 2.
Rest assured, Hollywood couldn’t stay away from the more horrific side of telekinesis for long, and this David Cronenberg movie in 1981 has probably one of the best exploding head scenes in cinema history. Again, it’s about people trying to exploit TK for their own purposes, only this time it’s a private corporation instead of the government that’s doing the dirty stuff. The movie stars Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame, as well as Michael Ironside, who always does well in the bad guy role.
Even though it was critically panned and only made $14 million bucks, it’s considered a classic and really needs to be seen for the scene with the head, and the climactic battle between Ironside and Stephen Lack. It’ll really make you wish you had some brain powers going on the next time someone cuts you off in traffic. It’s spawned a couple of sequels, and currently a remake is in the works.
Hollywood decided that another telekinetic comedy needed to be made, and this time with plenty of T&A. If you haven’t seen this 1982 Scott Baio / Willie Aames movie, then you’re really missing out. Baio stars as Barney, a goofy teenage kid who accidentally gives himself TK powers with a formula he’s concocted, and he uses it to make girls’ clothes fly off. Keep in mind that this is post-Chachi and pre-Charles in Charge Baio we’re talking about here.
The film was meant to be a parody of Carrie, although where that movie ends up at a prom where everyone people die and horrific things happen, Zapped! ends at a prom where everyone ends up getting naked. Ah the carefree days of the early 1980s and gratuitous nudity. The film was originally titled The Wiz Kid, and spawned a sequel called Zapped Again! which wasn’t nearly as good. I’m not sure how Bibleman Willie Aames feels about having this thing on his resume.
This groundbreaking Japanime film shows the dangers of messing around with human genes, and what happens when telekinesis really goes wrong. Although the movie is titled after a boy who developed telekinetic powers and then died, the real powered up star of this film is Tetsuo, who goes is able to stop tank shells and explosions, although he seems to have a real problem against lasers.
Akira was based on the equally groundbreaking manga, which clocked in at 2,182 pages. It helped jump start a second wave of interest in anime, even though it was labeled by both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as “unmarketable” in the United States. It features a pretty amazing soundtrack, and helped pave the way for Japanese animated films like Ghost in the Shell and Spirted Away.
I have to admit, I’m not the biggest John Travolta fan on the planet, but this movie somehow got through the cracks in my cynical moviegoer armor and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Travolta’s brain goes haywire after seeing a flash of light, and he suddenly exhibits genius-level intellect, and the ability to move things with his brain. Which he lamely demonstrates by levitating a pair of sunglasses.
The only problem with the film is that it helps propagate the myth that we only use 10% of our brains, and that somehow the flash of light has unlocked the rest of the brain in Travolta’s character. Oddly enough, a TV movie sequel called Phenomenon II aired on ABC in 2003, and it starred Terry O’Quinn, better known as Locke from Lost. It was meant to be a lead-in for a series, but dismal ratings helped kill that idea. Thankfully.
Yes, we all know the story. The Matrix appeared in 1999 and blew everyone’s socks off and changed the world of sci-fi films. Yadda yadda, etc etc. But it also offered up Neo as a pretty powerful telekinetic who advances from bending a spoon with his mind (although there is no spoon), to ultimately blowing up sentinels with the power of his brain.
Of course, most of that comes from his ability to manipulate the Matrix, due to the fact that he’s a hardcore computer programmer, but it still looks like good old TK. In fact, he has a total Jedi moment when he’s squating off against the Merovingian’s goons in The Matrix Reloaded, and he makes two sais fly off of the wall and into his hands. If that’s what a computer programmer can eventually do, then sign me up.
The year 2000 finally brought us a big-screen version of everyone’s favorite comic book mutants, and they included Marvel Girl Jean Grey who could move things with the power of her mind. Over the course of three movies we’ve seen her unbuckle Wolverine’s belt, literally part the waves, and also obliterate both Professor X and her boyfriend Scott Summers. Oops.
Jean Grey was one of the first “Omega level” mutants seen in comic books, and her Dark Phoenix stage really let her run rampant with the brain powers. She’s definitely much more fun to watch in this manifestation than she is in her “Oh… Scott! Oh… Logan!” state. She’s definitely one of the most powerful telekinetics in cinema, although that guy in The Medusa Touch could probably give her a run for her money.
It would really be a disservice if this list didn’t include one of the most badass telekinetics around. Ever since he took his first victim’s power and gained the ability to move things with his brain, Sylar has been one of the coolest villains not just on Heroes, but pretty much in sci-fi history. I mean, the guy can cut your head open and expose your brain just by looking at you. If that’s not amazing, then I just give up.
While he’s no Courtney Cox in Misfits of Science, he does wield his telekinetic power a lot better than she did. Plus, despite the fact that he has tons of powers to choose from, he keeps dipping back into the TK well. Probably because it’s both the coolest ability, and the cheapest power to show onscreen. While Heroes has been going downhill lately, Sylar keeps bringing me back.
This movie, which opens tomorrow, is based on the premise that the Nazis began experimenting on soldiers during World War II in an effort to give them psychic powers. Although the Nazis were defeated, the testing never stopped, and there are now programs run all over the world, including in the good old US of A. Only now, second-generation kids have been showing up with these abilities, and a government agency known as the “Division” is tracking them down.
In the film, Chris Evans stars as a “Mover,” someone who has telekinetic abilities. He can levitate objects, create shields around his body, and push or pull things (or people) at will. There’s a fairly cool scene in the film where he walks into a meeting with someone from Division while levitating two guns far above his head, just in case. Of course, he ends up needed them, and there’s a fairly cool firefight with a much more powerful telekinetic.
Men Who Stare At Goats
This movie, based on the book of the same name, is currently in production and is directed by George Clooney’s writing partner, Grant Heslov. It will star Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Ewan McGreoger, and Jeff Bridges, and is about a secret psychic division of the U.S. Army that is trying to imbue soldiers with paranormal abilities. The film itself will be set in Iraq, with McGregor playing a reporter who stumbles across the story when he meets Clooney, who plays a former “psychic soldier” who was reactivated post 9/11.
Jeff Bridges will play the head of the psychic soldier division, and Kevin Spacey will play another former psychic who is currently running a prison camp in Iraq. I haven’t heard much else about this movie, and I’m not even sure if it features telekinesis, but it just sounded too cool not to include on this list. I definitely need to pick up the book and check it out.
We’ve just scraped the surface here with the power of telekinetics in film, and I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t pursue Scott Baio’s Zapped! activities if I was similarly gifted. There are a lot of other examples of people with this power out there int he world of movies. What’s your favorite?