(SPOILERS) I’d like to be more charitable to Slipstream. It’s one of those pictures that is so profoundly unloved (rather than actively reviled), that you want to find elements of worth to cite it as picture that “might have been really good if only… “ But I don’t think it would have been particularly decent even if it had turned out as Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz envisaged. And I’m not sure its small contingent of defenders is enough to qualify it as a cult movie. It’s most noteworthy quality (I’d hesitate to say best) is probably Bob Peck’s performance as an android on a journey of self-awareness, but even that element feels profoundly misjudged in places.
Kurtz blames the tonal and content shifts as being at the behest of the producers (“It was supposed to be, the script was very, very hard-edged, heavy R, rough, and gritty ...a rougher than Blade Runner kind of look at the future, basically”) but its difficult to see that the script (credit to Tony Kayden and Bill Bauer) was ever anything but derivative of other, better movies and plots. That sense extends to the cast, with actors from more memorable science fiction movies and franchises (Mark Hamill from Star Wars, Bill Paxton from Aliens; the makers had probably also seen Peck’s superlative performance In Edge of Darkness).
The story comes across as a mishmash of elements without a unifying sense of purpose and story. I can quite believe the “android who dreamt he was a man” theme of Peck’s refreshingly upbeat Byron (as in, it’s interesting to have a portrayal so fiercely unlike any android of the era; if it isn’t always quite there, it’s at least different), so called because he quotes Byron, would have been handled better in more sympathetic hands, but it’s difficult to see how Paxton’s Matt Owens, an ill-conceived Han Solo-come-doofus, could ever have been massaged successfully into the proceedings; it feels like he’s wandering around in a completely different movie to Byron.
The same could be said for Hamill’s lawman Tasker and Kitty Aldridge as his partner Belitski. Their motivations and responses appear to blow with the wind (or slipstream), such that Tasker’s wisecracking one moment and a psycho the next (Hamill is great throughout though, enjoying the chance to play bad and submerge himself beneath bleached locks), while Belitski bafflingly falls for Matt (he’s about the least charming roguish “hero” thinkable, coming across as either a complete lech or moronic twat; Paxton’s mullet is quite extraordinary, though).
Tasker and Belitski are chasing Byron, a robot who killed his master (the implication being Byron did it as an act of kindness for a dying man) and is taken prisoner by Owens (who wants the reward himself). The backdrop is a post-apocalyptic future where, after the Convergence, when earthquakes and floods and split continents, there “emerged a river of wind called the slipstream washed the planet clean”. The introductory narration strains for a very ‘80s vision of a mythic future, but the writers have little notion of what to do with their premise.
All we see of civilisation are tattered remnants, yet presumably somewhere there are still surviving cities, such that technology is viable and law enforcement, however suspect, operates (there’s mention of “the Settlement”). This is a Mad Max 2 via Blade Runner future misguidedly repackaged for family viewing, one in which kit planes replace cars, and androids are repackaged as Christ-like miracle workers (healing cataracts) who learn to dream and search for a promised land at the end of the Slipstream, where other androids live (this element appears to have been picked up by the recent Automata, although its left more ambiguous here).
The low budget and the strange mismatches of locations (England, Ireland and Turkey), shot with dedicated torpor by Steven Lisberger (it’s a problem that infects TRON too), give this the sense of a picture stranded from another era, only emphasised by the strangely inappropriate Elmer Bernstein score (it has that family adventure movie in mind, that this could never be). Elements suggest an amalgam of Zardoz meets The Bedsitting Room (the sequence in the underground museum), but not as interesting or imaginative as that sounds.
Where Slipstream vaguely rewards is in the areas where there is suggestiveness rather than spoon-feeding, perhaps a Kurtz influence, since his contributions to Star Wars (the fist two) have that in abundance. The fractured remnants of society include those with expressly Luddite intent, worshipping the Slipstream and seeing Byron as representing “the runaway technology they blamed for the Convergence”.
The capsule of decadence in the museum, a decaying Britain attempting to preserve the past, with its references to “the good old days”, might have some bite if it didn’t reduce to a song and dance number. Byron rather goes off the rails at the end of the picture (“Help me, tell me what to do. Is this what its like to be human? I don’t think I’m up to it”) in a kind of sub-Mork way, but earlier, with his offbeat quotes (“I slipped the surly bonds of earth”) and the cult mis-divining his nature (“You have a very old soul”) there are hints at a depth the picture can only skim due to pervading ineptness.
When its not being a crashing bore, or Paxton’s not being a being an annoyance, that is. This is a picture that feels as if great chunks were missed out of it (they were; “It's very disjointed, big chunks of story that disappear completely, that were never even shot. I begged them to let us postpone shooting for six weeks so that we could restructure the thing, and they wouldn't do it”) and Lisberger is unable to inject sufficient life into it to make Slipstream an interesting failure.
Really, what energy there is, is down to Peck and Hamill (his voiceover work since has been prodigious, but you be hard pressed to find a notable studio picture between this and The Force Awakens, Village of the Damned remake aside). Paxton is horribly annoying throughout, which might work if he was supposed to be his True Lies character, but he’s meant to be loveable. Aldridge is rather wooden. There are “Isn’t that?” appearances from Robbie Coltrane, Paul Reynolds (on the cusp of Press Gang), Ben Kingsley (as Avatar) and F Murray Abraham (Paxton’s Aliens co-star Ricco Ross also turns up), so it passes the time for star watching if nothing else.
Slipstream doesn’t feel much like a movie released in 1989, aside from the egregious presence of Then Jericho’s Big Area on the soundtrack (this is a world with CDs, androids, and really crappy 1980s handheld computers). If it had appeared during the first couple of years of the decade, during the sci-fi glut that followed Kurtz’s biggest success story, it might have been better treated and realised. The idea was originally to tell the story of a boy and his android, like Huck Finn, so presumably that ended up as Paxton’s character. Ironically, it sounds more the kind of thing the producers wanted of Kurtz’s “grown-up” movie when they decreed it should be a family film, which it never feels like at all. What’s left is a slipshod and listless, but it does have a certain curiosity value (you can see it on YouTube), even though I’d hesitate to recommend anyone actually giving it a look.