If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you, I would let you know.
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
Five eggheads are sequestered away from society at a government-funded think tank called the Institute for Advanced Concepts. After countless projects, they realize that the country isn't worth saving. So they get into "more serious material" such as reprogramming all Nielsen figures for the past six years and trying to crossbreed a human and a cockroach in order to get a long-living survivor. On a dull day, the chief scientist Becker suggests that since the American public believes in extraterrestrial life, perhaps the five should given them what they want.
The intelligent man known to history flourishes within a dullard and holds a lunatic in leash.
Doris, their computer, comes up with the perfect person for the project: Simon, a university professor who is an orphan with no traceable parents. He's an ambitious man who believes "you can change the world with an idea." Becker brings him to the Institute and says, "I think you may be an authentic genius." They assign Cynthia to work with him on any project he desires. She then feeds them information on him. When he goes into a John Lilly-like isolation tank, they keep him there nearly eighty hours. Simon comes out in a daze. In a five-minute sequence, he enacts an evolutionary drama as a sea organism, a jellyfish, a monkey, a tribal dancer, a man oppressed by religion and guilt, a civilized person, a participant in the Industrial Revolution, and a modern day schizophrenic who leaps back into the tank to hide.
The five intellectuals give him a new birth memory and when Simon wakes up he's convinced that he is from outer space. Enclosed within a germ-free glass room, he is ready to speak to the world. Naturally the press ask is Simon a self-styled lunatic or the first visitor from outer space?
We must get it out of our head that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it…Things are grim enough without these shivery games…We love apocalypses too much.
Saul Bellow, Herzog
"Bad art, bad food, bad ideas everything's clogged up," Simon the Extraterrestrial tells the world via TV. He begins to see himself as a modern day Moses with the new law: there shall be no muzak on elevators; there shall be no portable radios on the streets; there shall be fines for cars blocking intersections.
The doomsday messages are not appreciated by Becker and his cohorts. They let Simon's wife visit, hoping she'll bring him back to his senses. When that fails, they try to gas him with a substance designed to cut his IQ in half. Simon and his wife flee as the gas encircles the compound and makes Becker's peers into mental yo-yos. Doris the computer calls in the Pentagon. The gas creeps toward Washington.
Simon and his wife hide with a strange communal group led by a man who was formerly programming head at ABC Television. Their scripture is TV Guide and their hymns are comprised of music from television ads ("Um, um, good; um um, good; that's why Campbell Soups are; um, um, good"). The extraterrestrial prophet begins broadcasting from the wilderness (their escape vehicle is a fully equipped TV studio). When Simon, the self-appointed savior realizes that people don't want to change their lives, beliefs or prejudices, he is sad-hearted. Happiness is learning that his wife is pregnant with their child. Simon concocts a revenge scheme for Becker and, after carrying it out, flees to a simpler life.
Eggheads unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks!
Marshall Brickman's movie is a verbal and visual feast of intellectual yolks! It is a zany meditation on intellectuals, the junk of contemporary culture, and the dominance of television in shaping our consciousness. It is also a kooky send-up of phony messiahs of all types. Brickman shared the 1977 Academy Award with Woody Allen for the original screenplay for Annie Hall and was also co-writer of Sleeper and Manhattan.
Simon is propelled by a witty screenplay, the energetic brio of Alan Arkin as Simon, and the droll brilliance of Austin Pendleton as Becker. Also good in support are Madeline Kahn, Judy Graubart, and Fred Gwynne. Experience Simon and you'll have a close encounter of the fourth kind.