Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

slaughterhouse_five

It’s going around the Hollywood grapevine that Charlie Kaufman and Guillermo del Toro will be collaborating on a film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. First of all, if you haven’t read the book, do. Now. Done? Okay. Second of all, we’ve already got a movie of it, and it’s won multiple awards, garnered critical acclaim, and has the seal of approval from Kurt Vonnegut himself. So, if George Roy Hill seems to have already nailed the story of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), the soldier who comes unstuck in time, is it worth adapting again?

THE STORY:
What I have to say about the movie doesn’t change the fact that you should read the book. Here, order it now and save this review for later. I’ll be talking about Frequency on Wednesday. Yeah, the magic ham radio one. That should tide you over for this week.

Come on. It’s real short.

If “story” simply means “the events that occur in the book,” then yes, the film got… well, most of them. The most basic of them. Okay, some of them.

“We got war…”

“…and that other thing. Pop the champagne!”

I fully expected that the film wouldn’t find a way to capture Vonnegut’s hilarious and heartbreaking prose style. I highly suspected that the film would take out the meta elements that involve Vonnegut himself being a part of the story. I absolutely didn’t predict that the film would leave some of the most iconic images and ideas out of the script. If you feel that burning the source material of an essentially unfilmable novel down to its skeleton isn’t worth a slap on the wrist, I suppose you can put away your ruler. But I’m holding on to mine.

Hey Billy, you wanna watch a war movie? No? Really?! Hmm.

What surprised me is that, for being based on a novel whose main premise is about jumping around in time, they seem to have re-ordered these jumps so that the truly bizarre events at the end of Billy’s life are… mostly at the end. I get that it’s difficult to believably introduce space aliens into a movie that already features something as far out as time travel, but… isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to wonder if Billy’s war experiences have sent him off the rails?

Alright, I do have praises for this movie, I swear. But they’re in the next department.

THE ACTING:
Aww, wouldn’t it have been cutesy if I listed these sections out of order? No. Cutesy isn’t what we’re going for. When it comes to the task of bringing an utterly broken PoW to the screen, a lot of the credit goes to the acting of Michael Sacks.

Whoa, is that an emotion?

Michael’s aimlessly wandering performance is exactly what’s needed for a man who simply watches his life happen rather than actively guiding it. Which makes it all the more disturbing when he smiles even a little bit.

Is that hope? Weird. Please hope less.

Speaking of unsettling grins, Ron Leibman plays Paul Lazzaro as the toothiest psychopathic son-of-a-bitch you’ll ever meet… or have the displeasure of serving with.

What? He seems nice.

While Billy’s snapping is underneath the surface, Lazzaro’s is on full display. Leibman embraces this giggling brand of crazy and especially lets it out of the cage when Lazarro gives a speech or two on revenge.

Ohhh shit…

Offsetting the terrifying Lazzaro is Eugene Roche as Edgar Derby, an idealistic schoolteacher-turned-soldier who briefly cheers Billy up in the midst of the madness. Roche’s presence is warm and friendly, and he’s the only character whose happy demeanor doesn’t scare me as to what it might be concealing.

Best friends forever!

Valerie Perrine is well-cast as Montana Wildhack, the Hollywood starlet and object of Billy’s affections. She’s a sexy ditz, to be sure, but Valerie also brings enough sweetness to the role to perfectly crank up that Freudian mommy vibe.

She makes me want freshly baked cookies. Is that weird?

The only performance that I didn’t think was the right fit for the movie was that of Billy’s wife, Valencia Merble Pilgrim. While she’s clearly supposed to be the wrong woman for Billy, Sharon Gans takes her beyond a satire of a loveless marriage to a shrieking cartoon character that’s more slapstick than social commentary. Maybe I felt too sympathetic towards her in the book?

Screeching her way through a Blues Brothers car scene doesn’t help.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
I don’t know, I feel like they could have worked a little harder on the Tralfamadorians.

Come on, guys. Show some effort.

No, rather than showing the aliens and risking the effects being terribly dated someday, they opted to only have them speak to Billy through a PA system. I doubt Guillermo del Toro will do the same.

The time travel is primarily handled through simple edits. Sometimes Billy looks up–

“Wha?”

And then he’s somewhere else. Somewhen else, if you’re a temporal grammar Naz– uh, buff.

Sorry.

Sometimes Billy will get a flash of another moment before he’s fully transported there, which doesn’t quite fit with how it’s depicted in the book, but I was okay with it. For example, he sees a random skier in the crowd at an airport shortly before finding himself on a snow-covered mountain. The use of fast zooms and rapid edits keep it brief and effectively jarring.

Murder Clowns of the Slopes!

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF (FOR PEOPLE WHO READ THE BOOK):

  • Guys, seriously? The epitaph, the bird, the war movie… pretty much the most famous quote in the book? All gone. Even lesser scenes that I still love, like the Magic Fingers, are the kind of ridiculous sadness the movie really needs. I know, adaptations, shit’s gotta go, but man…

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
The closest we get to any time travel bafflement is when Billy’s daughter Barbara (Holly Near) and her husband Stanley (Gary Waynesmith) question him about all the alien stuff. When Billy says he’s fooling around with the missing actress Montana Wildhack, Barbara is sickened by his crazy fantasies, while Stanley wonders just how this nutty time-unstuckness works:

“Dad! Hey, w-wait a minute, Dad. Dad, listen. I-if you go back and forth in time,
do you go into the future, too? Well– I mean, h-how far do you go? Do you actually go–“

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Should one be commended for taking on the losing battle that is the unadaptable novel? I can’t say myself. It’s intriguing to see select scenes from Slaughterhouse-Five come to life, especially when fleshed out with exceptional performances, but in a story with countless layers, it feels a bit cheap to see only the most basic framework represented. I certainly enjoyed what I saw. Still, it’s unfortunate that such a large percentage of the book’s contents had to be killed off to bring it to the screen.

So it goes.

LATER THIS WEEK:
Frequency (2000)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.