Skip to main content

Time travel’s a bitch for you, isn’t it?

Slaughterhouse-Five
(1972)

(SPOILERS) It’s little surprise this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction classic has drifted into obscurity. As director George Roy Hill’s follow up to his breakout hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and preceding the even bigger success of The Sting, it might be seen as occupying similar territory to, say, Peter Jackson misfiring with The Lovely Bones between Tolkiens (give or take a Kong). The Slaughterhouse-Five novel was only three years old when the movie came out, and if the audience reception was muted, it nevertheless garnered the Jury Prize at Cannes (so it was certainly better received than Jackson’s unloved effort). Vonnegut was profusive in his praise (“… a flawless translation… it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book”). But as Stephen King has proved repeatedly, literary credentials don’t necessarily foster cinematic discernment. Slaughterhouse-Five feels a little too literal minded, lacking the point of view that would make it a strong movie in its own right. I’m also doubtful that it played to the director’s genre strengths, however effective certain sequences are.

Stephen Geller’s screenplay tracks the major plot points of “unstuck in time” Billy Pilgrim, shuffling between war-torn Dresden, his late 1960s patriarchal life, and a yet-further future sojourn on the planet Tralfamadore. There, living within a geodesic dome, Billy is given porn-star mate Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine) by the fourth dimensional Tralfamadorians, eager to witness human mating rituals. There’s no shortage of ideas, but something is clearly missing. Hill’s movie lacks personality, which you could never say about Vonnegut’s writing, and he evidently has no affinity with the science-fiction element. For the most part, the transitions between time periods lack energy and dramatic heft. Slaughterhouse-Five is also largely humourless – the twisted demise of 1960s wife Valencia (Sharon Gans) being a notable exception – which is odd, given Hill was far from a slouch in that department.

The best-realised sequences are undoubtedly those during World War II, their content largely autobiographical on Vonnegut’s part (the horrors of Dresden haunted him and would inform much of his political perspective). Even here, though, we can see quite starkly the problems an adaptation faces. Was Sachs cast for his resemblance to a young Vonnegut? Maybe. He was a decent actor before he went off to Wall Street, but he makes Billy Pilgrim rather passive (to be fair, reflecting the novel). Which in turn makes the movie rather passive. Sachs is additionally constricted by various layers of prosthetics as Billy ages.

Other production and casting elements are similarly variable in success. There are decent performances from Ron Leibman as Billy’s fellow POW and persecutor, and Eugene Roche as his protector (who dies in a bitterly ironic wave of the hand). The Glenn Gould score is strong, and Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography effective during the war sequences (again, a different approach for the other time frames would have been more impactful).

It’s stating the obvious, but material that sings on the page can prove tone deaf on the screen, and there’s an essential conundrum Hill and Geller fail to solve with a narrative built on the illusion of free will. The Tralfamadorians hold this fatalistic position, owing to their ability to see beyond the illusion of time. Discussing the death of the universe, they report that it will end with one of their number, experimenting with new fuels, will press the fateful button. He “has always pressed it and he always will” (one wonders if Steve Gallagher was inspired by this when writing Doctor Who’s Terminus).

This kind of causally contortive idea has been better expressed by Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys and various Philip K Dick adaptations (and confirmed, then rebuked, and then confirmed again in the various Terminators). Here, the lack of authorial voice voids any bite the conceptual musing might sustain. Vonnegut is full of ideas and opinions, but Hill rather flattens them.

The overriding issue in translating Slaughterhouse-Five to the screen is not dissimilar to another problematic adaptation of two years prior, Catch-22. Both feature hyphens and numbers in their titles, both tell their story through fractured time frames, both were received as anti-war, and both possess a dark sense of humour. And both had mixed cinematic fortunes. Indeed, while both productions were doubtless spurred by the ongoing Vietnam War, which had boosted the novels’ reception or ongoing popularity, they were entirely eclipsed by another picture set during an earlier conflict. One that more acutely captured counter-culture irreverence: Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Also based on a novel, but as is often the case when a movie catches the zeitgeist, entirely eclipsed by it. By comparison, Slaughterhouse-Five is stodgy and over earnest, as if Hill is nervously backing away from Vonnegut’s literary style.

While the novel’s anti-war ethic comes through in the movie – particularly with the post-plane crash 1960s Billy’s fellow patient dismissing his first-hand experience of Dresden: “The hell with him. Let him write his own book” – other elements are less certain. The freewill aspect only really foregrounds itself during the later Trameldorian sequences (largely moved to the end of the movie). Further, because Hill and editor Dede Allen (also a regular for Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet) are unable to crack the sequential interplay, Billy’s final fate carries little import.

Most of the rest is vague at best. Vonnegut’s politics have been painted in broad strokes by some, but this was exactly the kind of characterisation he objected to (“If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering foetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other… you’re a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative. What could be simpler?”) That he favoured socialism and spoke positively about communism might suggest he did mistakenly buy in to certain Hegelian dualistic constructs, but it would be too easy to reduce him to simple soundbites. Likewise, his outlook on religion, while being a self-professed atheist, took many of its values from Christianity (he also characterised himself as a freethinker).

Charlie Kaufman was announced as to pen a new adaptation for Guillermo del Toro nigh on a decade back. Kaufman has the right kind of bent for Vonnegut, but I doubt another take could fare substantially better. The remake – often in mini-series format – has been popular of late, including such notables The Name of the Rose and Catch-22, but this boom in serialised TV has also sputtered somewhat, broadly around the time all the hopes and dreams for Game of Thrones fell apart for a vocal section of the audience. Movies like Slaughterhouse-Five tend to become cult classics; it’s telling that it hasn’t, and probably stands as a warning to any thinking they know better and determined to give it another shot.




Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

He's not a nightstalker, and it'll take a lot more than bench presses to defeat him.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) (SPOILERS) The most successful entry in the franchise, if you don’t count Freddy vs. Jason . And the point at which Freddy went full-on vaudeville, transformed into adored ringmaster rather than feared boogeyman. Not that he was ever very terrifying in the first place (the common misapprehension is that later instalments spoiled the character, but frankly, allowing Robert Englund to milk the laughs in bad-taste fashion is the saving grace of otherwise forgettably formulaic sequel construction). A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasts the most inventive, proficient effects work yet, but it’s also by far the least daring in terms of plotting, scraping together a means for Freddy to persist in his nocturnal pestilence while offering nothing in the way of the unexpected, be it characterisations or story points.

Give daddy the glove back, princess.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) (SPOILERS) Looking at Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare , by some distance the least lauded (and laudable) of the original Elm Street sextet, you’d think it inconceivable that novice director and series old-hand – first as assistant production manager and finally as producer – Rachel Talalay has since become a respected and in-demand TV helmer. For the most part, Freddy’s Dead is shockingly badly put together. It reminded me of the approach the likes of Chris Carter and Sir Ken take, where someone has clearly been around productions, absorbing the basics of direction, but has zero acumen for turning that into a competent motion picture, be it composition, scene construction, editing or pacing. Talalay’s also responsible for the story idea here, which does offer a few nuggets, at least, but her more primary role actively defeats any positives.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.