KLAATU YOU (44)

By: Tom Roston
October 28, 2020

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.

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SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | d. GEORGE ROY HILL | 1972

Stuck in the craw of the original novel on which the film Slaughterhouse-Five is adapted is the poison pill that it should never be turned into a movie. Well, that’s not exactly true. More that it should never be turned into a movie that is appealing.

In the first chapter, Kurt Vonnegut writes that his breakthrough in writing the book after struggling with it for twenty-three years was when he visited his old war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, who’s wife was appalled that he was writing a story that would inevitably glorify war and have a Hollywood ending. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

Vonnegut promises her that he will do no such thing and he keeps his word: the book is an unhinged trip through the mind of its damaged antihero, Billy Pilgrim, a befuddled, inert character who jumps in time in and out of his experiences as a soldier in World War II and later as a small-town optometrist who gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. No bugles for war can be heard.

As a book, it works. And when I was seventeen, the film was one of my favorites; I wasn’t the only teen who had a thing for alienated heroes bewildered by human existence. Now, though, I see the film as a beautiful failure, because, at its core there are several poison pills. And it’s not that there is no such thing as an effective antiwar film. The devastating Soviet movie, Come and See and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove are two of my favorites.

I’m writing a book about the book Slaughterhouse-Five and so I tracked down its screenwriter, Stephen Geller, who told me he was flummoxed by his task of adapting it. He complained to his producer, “The hero isn’t interesting.” The producer suggested he call Vonnegut, so he did. He asked Vonnegut if he had any pointers and all the author could muster was that Pilgrim loved his dog and his car. “I wanted to shoot myself,” Geller recalls.

I think Geller did as good a job as he could. But, crucially, what makes Vonnegut’s story work is the presence of Vonnegut himself. His first-person authorial voice in the first and last chapters of the book, as well as four crucial interjections sprinkled in Pilgrim’s story, are what make Slaughterhouse-Five a metafictional masterpiece.

And as if that wasn’t enough going against the film, there’s Michael Sacks, the wooden actor who plays Pilgrim. When we imagine a totally dull, inert character, it’s possible to follow him or her through a book. But when we watch an actor inertly play an inert character, he falls flat. Oh, and did I mention that he ages on screen with a makeup job that is laughably bad to 21st century eyes?

If there is still something lovable about the film, it’s primarily that it is an awkward extension of Vonnegut. Wouldn’t you know, the unpredictable, irascible author loved the movie! With his books, he managed to infect the world with his utterly unique off-kilter, critical-yet-loving mockery. But that didn’t translate onto the big screen. In fact, all of the movie adaptions of his books are considered failures. There’s something very Vonnegutian about that.

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KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL | Seth Mnookin on NUDE ON THE MOON.

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Categories

Enthusiasms, Movies, Sci-Fi

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