top

Threshold
(1981)

Director: Richard Pierce
Cast:
Donald Sutherland, John Marley, Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum


It goes without saying that right now we have made more progress in a lot of things than in any other time that man has inhabited this earth. Though at the same time a lot of new problems have come up that mankind in the past didn't have to deal with, such as the threat of nuclear terrorism. So what is the future going to be like for us, our children, or our grandchildren? Well, with what I said at the beginning of this paragraph should give you some kind of clue as to what I think future generations will have to deal with. If you haven't guessed, I'll tell you right now - people in the future will both deal with some wonderful things that we can only dream of right now, but at the same time there will be some darker stuff that will come up, problems that we currently don't have to deal with. I'll start by giving a sample of one dark thing that will happen sooner or later, since I like to save the best for the last. For starters, with the way things are going right now, it seems that sometime in the future all video stores will vanish from the face of the earth. To me that's a bad thing. Sure, there are some advantages in downloading and streaming, but to me the experience of going through shelves of videocassettes and DVDs is something that simply cannot be replicated. (Well, at least there will still be libraries in the future, so I can always go to one of them to slightly replicate the good feeling.) But there will be good things in the future as well. For example, take the Internet. Ever since it was embraced by the mainstream public decades ago, people have been hard at work to giving it more features and conveniences for users. I can only imagine what new and great Internet-related features will come up for us in the future.

To be honest, even though I say that there will be new problems coming up in the future, I have a feeling that there will be a lot more good things that will be introduced to mankind. But I don't think that everybody will be convinced of this. I base this on mankind's history of facing new inventions and new ideas that come up. Things were really dark centuries ago. Remember Galileo Galilei way back in the seventeenth century? He determined scientific facts such as the one that stated that two objects of different weights would fall to the ground at the same rate, as well as heliocentrism (the fact that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun). And how was he rewarded when he pushed these facts to the public? The church forced to recant and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Eventually (many years later), the church did apologize and admit that Galileo was correct, but what essentially happened to Galileo at the time had more or less happened before, and happened since. That being that when a new idea or invention comes up, there is often resistance to the new thing. Sometimes the resistance is well intended and sound, like when the idea of sublimial commercial messages in movies was introduced, and laws were passed that banned it. But most of the time the panic seems silly. There were all those people, for example, during the Industrial Revolution that went around smashing machines that seemed to threaten people's jobs. But today we have a heck of a lot more machines than we did during the Industrial Revolution, and the majority of people still have jobs.

I sometimes wonder if controversial stuff that is happening today will seem totally innocent and not the least bit dangerous in decades to come. For example, there is all that fuss about genetically modified food, something that scares even Chuck Norris according to his rants at the World Net Daily web site. I have a feeling that genetically modified food will be a lot more accepted by the public Thresholdin the future. We'll see. Anyway, I do find the public reaction to new technology and new ideas very interesting, so you may understand why I was attracted to the movie Threshold when I found it in a thrift store. It deals with something that at the time of filming hadn't actually occurred yet - the first use of a compact artificial heart on a human being. Nowadays the use of artificial hearts seems almost normal, but I was interested to see what the movie's attitude all those years ago was to the subject. Adding to the interest was the fact the movie was not an American production, but instead a Canadian production, which suggested a fresh perspective to the subject. With the exception of the setting - this is yet another Canadian film set in the United States. At the California Heart Institute there is one Dr. Thomas Vrain (Sutherland, Dan Candy's Law), whose speciality is organ transplants. Vrain is a doctor who strives for improvements and advancements in the field, and when he meets Dr. Aldo Gehring (Goldblum, The Fly), Vrain knows he's found someone to support him. Gehring has a promising idea for a new kind of artificial heart, which excites Vrain enough that he manages to get the C.H.I. the funding from a rich philanthropist (Marley, Framed) to build the artificial heart. After the artificial heart is built, Vrain wants to implant the heart into patient Carol Severance (Winningham, Turner & Hooch), who is having heart troubles. But when Vrain brings this proposal to the institute's board members, it is rejected. Later, while operating on Carol, Vrain is unable to repair her heart by conventional methods, and realizes he has to make a literal life or death decision - and quickly.

From that plot description, you probably have a good theory as to how Threshold unfolds its plot. More likely than not you are thinking that the process to building the artificial heart and the proposal of its use takes place in the movie's first third to first half. After that sequence, then there would be a fairly short surgery sequence, and the rest of the movie would deal with the consequences of this revolutionary surgery, both for the patient and the doctors who were responsible for the surgery. At least that's how I expected the movie to unfold. Surprisingly, that's not what happens. The implant of the artificial heart actually happens after slightly more than two-thirds of the movie has passed. Knowing this, you may understand why the less than expected remaining running time doesn't seem adequate to fully deal with the consequences portion of Threshold. Right after the surgery, we are told that there is a fury outside of the hospital, but we don't immediately see it. Eventually we get a couple of (brief) scenes of reporters taking photographs, but that's about all we see of the media coverage of this breakthrough surgery. Dr. Gehring is invited to a radio talk show, but he doesn't get to say much, nor do we hear the radio host ask any pointed questions towards him. Dr. Vrain is invited to a post-surgery lecture, but after we see the audience applaud at his introduction, the movie then immediately cuts to the next scene, so we don't get to hear Vrain's thoughts at this controversial time. For that matter, we never get to learn the Institute's board's reaction to Dr. Vrain implanting the artificial heart after they had told him he couldn't use it.

Worst of all is the post-surgery look at the patient herself, Carol Severance. It takes more than twenty minutes after the surgery for Carol to finally start speaking again, and she only gets a couple of minutes to express her concerns and feelings to Dr. Vrain before she is discharged from the institute and the movie suddenly ends before it can follow her further. As you can see from all this, the consequences portion of Threshold leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, the movie's concentration on the pre-surgery portion leads to some positive things that may not have been included in a more balanced treatment of the story. For one thing, the look at this corner of the American medical field is one of the more detailed and convincing I've seen in a movie for a long time. The opening scene, depicting Dr. Vrain operating on another patient, best sums thing up, with Vrain sounding a little bored by what he is doing - he's obviously been down this road many times before - but at the same time being totally professional with the work he's doing. As the movie progresses, we see the routine rounds in the institute, the talking to patients, including a subplot about another patient (played by Michael Lerner) that Dr. Vrain is treating, as well as what goes on with the doctors outside of the institute. Some viewers with less patience may squirm at all this detail that's not related to the - ahem - heart of the movie, that being the whole artificial heart thing. But for me at least, I was very interested in all of this extraneous detail. It gave me more of a good idea of what life can be like for a doctor more than many other movies involving the medical profession. It's a life that is full of hard work, not all of it concerned with directly treating patients, such as the scene when Vrain has to sell the idea for the proposed heart to the philanthropist.

I also appreciated the tone that director Richard Pearce (Leap Of Faith) gave all of this detail, as well as the rest of the movie. His approach to the material is one that is very low key. All the players in the story have been doing what they have been doing for a long time, so it's very believable that most of what we see them do is almost instinct by now. One such example is with the case of Carol Severance, the patient who gets the artificial heart. Long before that happens, her initial meeting with Dr. Vrain is very telling. As she talks, we learn that she has been sick for a long time, so she is long past tears and getting upset. She seems to have accepted the possibility of dying... but at the same time, she has a little spark of hope that just maybe Vrain can help her. It's a very good scene, helped by the fact that actress Mare Winningham finds just the right note to play her character, subdued, yet hasn't quite given up. The other star performance in the movie belongs to Donald Sutherland. His character is not supposed to get emotionally involved with his patients, of course. But every so often we get to see a spark of humanity from this man, whether it is cursing out loud during a complex surgery or throwing something in a rage when alone in his office after a patient of his dies. Though this doctor has a serious job to do, and does it in a low key manner, we always see in his eyes that he really cares about his fellow man. It's a masterful balance by Sutherland, one that doesn't lazily spoon feed the audience what they may be expecting. As I've illustrated elsewhere, Threshold isn't a movie that goes by convention, which may turn off some viewers. But viewers with a taste for something told a little differently, and are willing to accept a few flaws toward the end, will probably find the movie has more then enough interest.

(Posted January 15, 2018)

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Cardiac Arrest, Dan Candy's Law, Dr. Cook's Garden

homeindexgenree-mail