Jeff Goldblum broke out to audiences in 1986 with David Cronenberg’s iconic body horror science fiction The Fly, which cemented his image in popular culture for years. The film starred the actor as a quirky, intensely intelligent scientist; he was equal measures charming and slightly unnerving, handsome and yet clearly coded as a nerd. Jeff Goldblum essentially created a new cinematic trope, the Jeff Goldblum-type. He essentially played the same character in Independence Day, Jurassic Park, and many Jurassic sequels. He also pulled this character out for the controversial 1995 science fiction film Powder, which is now streaming on Hulu. Jeff Goldblum plays more of a supporting role in this oddball feature, but no one can bring the vaguely scientific exposition like him.
Powder begins as all strange stories do, with a dark and stormy night. We see a heavily pregnant woman being rushed to a hospital in what are clearly dire circumstances. A doctor informs the father (Phil Hayes) that she has died during delivery, and while the child survived, he is albino and appears to have unexpected, powerful brain activity. In a scene shockingly intense for being the opening moments of a film, the father stands over his newborn, repeating that he is not his son, while the bawling newborn’s EEG readings go from frantic lines to solid black bars.
Fast forward, and the child is now Jeremy Reed (Sean Patrick Flanery, unrecognizable under heavy makeup), nicknamed Powder by his grandparents. He grew up entirely on their family farm and despite no formal education, has read a small library of books. After the death of his grandfather, a child psychologist (Mary Steenburgen) takes him to a youth home. He enrolls in high school, where he meets a group of bullies who are determined to torture him for his hairlessness and albinism, a pretty girl who seems interested in him (Melissa Lahlitah Crider), and a quirky, intensely intelligent science teacher (Jeff Goldblum, naturally). Jeff Goldblum discovers that Sean Patrick Flanery has an intensely electromagnetically charged brain which allows him to manipulate magnetic forces around himself, the world’s highest record IQ ever, and, as it turns out, supernatural powers.
Jeff Goldblum does not show about up until about 30 minutes into Powder, but he quickly becomes part of a triumvirate of apparently the only decent adult human beings in the unnamed small Texas town (the movie was filmed around Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). Along with Mary Steenburgen and Jeff Goldblum, the local sheriff (science fiction staple Lance Henrikson) attempts to protect Powder and connect with him, but to little avail. There are also a lot of lightning effects.
Powder is as much a strange fable as it is a science fiction movie. While there is a veneer of ideas like Powder’s electromagnetic charge preventing him from growing any body hair (as theorized by a stammering Jeff Goldblum), there is also his unexplained ability to essentially tap into the emotional state of all beings at all time. Powder seems to recognize deep loneliness in everyone around him, despite their constant unmotivated attacks on him. In many ways, Powder is the story of a sensitive, flawless being who is judged and harmed by a world that does not understand him.
And that is where the controversy in this particular Jeff Goldblum movie comes from. Powder was written and directed by Victor Salva, who had once been a burgeoning filmmaking talent hand-picked by Francis Ford Coppola as a protege. Salva caught Coppola’s eye with the horror short Something in the Basement; the Godfather director would produce his first theatrical film Clownhouse, reportedly even giving him the same camera George Lucas had shot American Graffiti with.
However, Victor Salva was convicted of sexual misconduct with one of the underage stars of Clownhouse in 1988. He pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison, serving 15 months; according to Salva, he was frequently savagely beaten in prison for his crime (which he also videotaped). Victor Salva’s victim publically came forward to out the director when Powder was released, calling for a boycott and making his conviction public knowledge. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc., the production company behind Powder and a subsidiary of Disney, claimed they did not know of Salva’s conviction before hiring him for the film.
Despite the boycott and controversy, Powder was successful at the box office, perhaps due to the white-hot drawing power of Jeff Goldblum in 1997. It has now become something of a footnote in his career and a pop cultural joke, just another one of the oddball films that checker his long career.