Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review - Slaughterhouse-Five

1973 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Allow me to give you a one line review of this film from the person I watched it with last night:

"What the hell was that about?"

And that pretty much sums up the film Slaughterhouse-Five. While Vonnegut's novel is chaotic there is a rhythm and underlying pattern so that we build up a view of the whole thing. The movie is an odd mix of faithful sequences that lack context to give them strength and things that have been changed for no reason and undermine the story they are attempting to tell.

It reminds me a lot of the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone if you're not in the United States). Both films throw images from their source material at the viewer and ignore any attempt to have the characters explain it. If you're not one of the people who read the original work then you're out of luck and you have to piece together some vague understanding out of the scraps. The only people who could enjoy it are people who are already fans.

And that is what I'm suspecting is behind the movie's award. People are remembering the Vonnegut book which is worthy of attention but this film is not. You'll note how it has fallen pretty much off the radar in recent years. The DVD, for example, was out of print for years until fairly recently.

I can't give you a propper plot synopsis just due to the nature of the movie but in brief it chronicles the life of Billy Pilgrim a man who "has become unstuck in time" which causes him to view moments of his life out of order. It flickers between his time a prisoner of war in Dresden and his life after the war where he is eventually abducted by aliens with no sense of time who explain that everything is predestined and this somehow makes it all okay.

Those aliens are a good example of the problems with the adaptation. They spent quite a bit of time explaining their view of time which was lifted straight from Vonnegut and then impatiently demand that Billy Pilgrim have sex with another abductee, their repeated impatient demands directly contradicting the speech that was given just a few minutes before.

Most of Billy Pilgrim's life after the war is told linearly in the film though in the book it jumped around quite a bit. This served to have oddities like Billy try to stop a disaster that he knows is coming despite the fact that he should already know that it is impossible for him to change thing.

I would have hoped that the Dresden sequences would be as horrifying as they were in the novel but we never get to know Dresden in the movie and the after effects look just like any other bombed city rather than one that was reduced to ash. So we don't have a real connection to the people being attacked and we don't have the scale of the horror that Vonnegut described.

Billy Pilgrim in the movie is a complete blank. This is more acceptable in the novel since we know why he is that way but in the movie it makes him seem a bland, personalityless manikin. Since he's the central focus of almost every single shot in the film it drains the life out of it even worse.

I can't recommend this film. It fails to stand on its own as a movie and even as an adaptation it isn't very good. Slaughterhouse-Five would be a challenge to film but that doesn't excuse their failure to adapt it well.