Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Movie Review: Slipstream (1989)

With FantaSci on the horizon for Saturday, I thought it would be a good time to review one of my favorite cult sci-fi films, Steven Lisberger’s Slipstream. Before we get started I will tell you upfront that Slipstream is not a GREAT film on the order of 2001, Star Wars, Blade Runner, etc. It has some considerable flaws yet it is still a compelling little gem with an interesting history and pedigree. One of only three films helmed by Lisberger, aka the director of TRON, Slipstream is a post-apocalyptic thriller that juggles multiple themes. It concerns itself with the hotter than ever present day topic of resource conservation, and also ponders what it means to be human. What makes Slipstream a true cult curiosity is not the subject matter however, but the various players who were involved. It sprung from the mind of Lisberger and the producer of Star Wars (Gary Kurtz), and brought together a talented cast including Bill Paxton, Bob Peck, F. Murray Abraham, and Ben Kingsley. Most interesting of all was that the star of the film was none other than Mark Hamill, returning from a 6-year hiatus during which he performed on Broadway in a variety of roles. Add everything up and you have an unusual combination of elements that make for a decidedly one-of-a-kind experience.

In the near future on a ravaged planet Earth, bounty hunter Will Tasker (Hamill), and his female partner Belitski (Kitty Aldridge) are chasing a fugitive (Bob Peck) wanted for murder. After catching him they cross paths with a wise-cracking smuggler named Matt Owens (Bill Paxton) who steals their quarry so that he can collect the promised reward. A high altitude chase ensues across the slipstream, a river of wind that now blankets Earth due to a series of vaguely referenced ecological catastrophes resulting from mankind’s misuse of natural resources. Along the way we find out the fugitive is an android trying to understand what it means to be human, and Paxton begins to question whether he truly should turn in the prisoner that gradually has become a friend. The adventure culminates in a final battle between bounty hunter and android in which there can be no winner.

I first saw Slipstream in high school circa 1990 at the urging of a friend who said it was something special. This was during the late VHS era right before I got into laserdisc, so video store safaris were a regular feature of teenage existence. What you have to appreciate about this, particularly if you didn’t experience this firsthand, is that throughout the 80’s picking out a video was truly an adventure. Alongside tried and true blockbusters like Road Warrior, you would also see a video with a cool looking cover called Future Kill (for example). It had art by H. R. Giger and a cool sounding post-apocalyptic style plot, so you figured how could one go wrong? Since there was no Internet to provide a heads up I learned the answer to that question time and again throughout the decade, so by the time the 90’s rolled around interesting looking covers to unfamiliar sounding movies constituted nothing less than a dare. To make matters worse the movie in question had as its main selling-point that it starred Mark Hamill. Mark Hamill? You mean the guy from Star Wars? Yeah that guy.

I don’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of the fan community, but I get the impression that Hamill is considered somewhat of a cult hero these days. Everyone knows he loves comics and sci-fi, and he shows up regularly in tribute scenarios on everything from The Simpsons to Robot Chicken. He just seems like a cool guy who appreciates the fans and isn’t afraid to be counted among them. Back in the day, before becoming a personality through his attachment to comics and animation, Hamill was known simply as Luke Skywalker. Period. He tried to break out in a number of films that ranged from decent to spectacular (e.g. Corvette Summer, The Big Red One, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia), but could never escape his signature role. Since Hollywood wasn’t giving him the parts he desired, he went to Broadway where he starred in Amadeus, The Elephant Man, and a number of other plays. Not too shabby. Minus the benefit of the Internet, or an interest in New York theatre, I knew him strictly as the guy from Star Wars
and a few movies that didn’t seem particularly interesting to me at the time.

Aside from his failure to make an impact with me outside of Star Wars, something else contributed toward my late 80's apathy toward Hamill. Blockbusters were undergoing a bit of a change at that moment in time, with edgier fare capturing viewer interest. As a result Star Wars had faded a bit in prominence. It’s not that the films weren’t still beloved, but the toys had made their way to the discount racks so I’ll leave it at that. In their place were brooding superheroes (e.g. Batman) or over-the-top action spectacles (e.g. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon). Worse still in the case of Hamill, conventional wisdom had become that Han Solo was the star of Star Wars. He was cool where Luke was just a whiny brat. Cementing this point of view was Harrison Ford’s rise to superstardom courtesy of Indiana Jones. So not only had Star Wars faded to the background, but Hamill’s iconic character was out of fashion as well. By the time he got around to making it back to the big screen in Slipstream, his triumphant return was greeted with indifference. I was firmly in the skeptic camp and resistant to giving Slipstream a chance, but my friend was so enthusiastic I couldn’t help but agree to relent. This turned out to be a turning point for me, as thereafter became bona fide Mark Hamill fan.

How did the film/Hamill achieve this not insignificant feat you may ask? Well the thing I haven’t spelled out about his character in Slipstream, although certainly the synopsis hints at it, is that Hamill is both the leading man and the villain in the movie. Right away to the film’s credit the idea of making the leading man the villain is a wildly radical maneuver. It’s a game changer that you rarely see done for the simple fact that it turns audiences off. We want someone we can root for. The second bold move on the film’s part is to make that guy Hamill. Remember he had been out of the limelight for over half a decade, and when he returns it’s as a sociopathic bounty hunter. What’s more is that he pulls the transformation off as convincing as any actor I’ve ever seen. To begin with he’s practically unrecognizable physically. Bleach blond hair, beard, bulked up, wild-eyed, and generally nasty in disposition. Every time I have shown this movie to anyone, without fail they did not know it was Hamill until I told them (and even after they remained in disbelief for a while).

The physical change is just the beginning though. For the running time of Slipstream Hamill becomes the merciless Tasker. You believe he could totally take care of business, and he lets no shred of humanity shine through. Most importantly he exhibits a true screen presence. While Hamill always maintained an agreeable persona in the Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker didn’t give him much of a chance to show he was capable of being an actor with range. Once I went back and saw some of his other work, particularly The Big Red One, I was completely sold. To me though Tasker is still the character I point to, and the film I pull out whenever I need to convince someone that Hamill is a great actor.

This is probably controversial, but I think Hamill has a far greater range than Harrison Ford. I make this comparison because they both had more or less the same starting point. Ford only shot to superstardom after Raiders. In fact he had an experience similar to Hamill's in trying to break out in films such as Hanover Street and The Frisco Kid, which had lukewarm receptions. Raiders gave him that second franchise to keep him in the limelight when his other efforts didn’t ignite (which included Blade Runner). When you think about it Ford basically plays himself in every movie, only his mood varies (sometimes he's concerned and sometimes he's not very concerned). In that sense he’s more of a movie star than an actor. If you like what he does (and I do) that’s great. If not there’s little reason to stick around.

With Hamill you can have him playing wide-eyed hero (Star Wars), troubled soldier (The Big Red One), quirky state trooper (The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia), zoned out cameraman (Britannia Hospital), steely bounty hunter (Slipstream), or even The Joker (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm). Those titles in and of themselves constitute an interesting body of work, and he is terrific in each one. Unfortunately Slipstream, while being arguably the best of the bunch in terms of his performance, was also the nail in the coffin of his big screen career (live-action at least). For whatever reason the film was unable to secure a theatrical release in America, and only played limited runs in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan. Worse still is that it seems to have lapsed into the public domain, as it appears in a number of cheap DVD sets with an awful transfer. Sadly the 20-year-old VHS is probably better. The best way to see it is the Japanese laserdisc, which sports the only widescreen transfer I'm aware of. It makes a world of difference . . . but you’ll have to hunt it down Tasker style!

I’ve spent a LOT of time on Hamill here, but that’s because he is the pressing reason to see Slipstream. If there is a lasting importance of Slipstream in film history, it’s because it's Mark Hamill's comeback movie. This is not to say there aren't other positive elements. The rest of the performances are quite good, if overshadowed by Hamill. Bob Peck (Jurassic Park) makes a sympathetic impression as the soul-searching android, and Bill Paxton perfects his good ol’ boy template that would serve him so well on numerous occasions. Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, and F. Murray Abraham aren’t given much screen time, but make the most of what they have. Perhaps the only weak link is Kitty Aldridge as Belitski. Her performance as Tasker’s right hand seems a little forced, and you don’t quite believe her eleventh hour change of heart. She’s not bad, but her shortcomings are more noticeable with everyone else operating at a high level.

The other story here involves the guys behind the scenes. Hamill wasn’t the only one who was looking for a comeback. Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz needed a hit after The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz failed to reach blockbuster status. Lisberger’s TRON also wasn’t a runaway success, and was followed an okay John Cusack comedy called Hot Pursuit. I’m guessing Slipstream was a make or break situation for both of them since they haven’t done a whole lot since. This is unfortunate because they put together a cool little movie with blockbuster aspirations. The characters are involving, the story occasionally hits original notes, and the effects (for the time) are quite good. Given that the director of TRON is involved it’s not surprising to see some early computer-generated effects mixed in. This is pre-Jurassic Park stuff, and totally unconvincing, yet you can tell it must have cost a fortune by how slick it is at times. When not working with CGI Lisberger fares better, including a suspenseful sequence where Paxton has to rescue Peck, who has been bound to a giant kite turned loose in the slipstream.

If Slipstream has any significant drawback it’s that the pacing lags at times. Lisberger gives us a number of great sequences such as the opening confrontation between Paxton and Hamill, the kite rescue, and a satisfying final showdown. However there are also stretches with Paxton making observations about the natural disaster that turned the world upside down, Peck and Paxton discussing humanity, Hamill and Aldridge debating the nature of their existence, etc., that go on a little too long. They have some interesting things to say, but could be trimmed down a bit. It’s as if Lisberger wants to make a 2001, but doesn’t understand that deliberate pacing doesn’t not necessarily equate to intellectual depth. This doesn’t ruin the film, but may account for why it had trouble obtaining a distributor. A sci-fi action spectacular with too little action or things spectactular may not have been appealing in a year of Batman, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and others returning to the cinemas. In some ways this could have been Hamill’s Blade Runner, and would have made for a quirky change of pace in the summer of 1989.

Bottom line you should absolutely check Slipstream out, especially if you want to see an entirely different side of Mark Hamill. Just be forewarned that practically any DVD you come by is going to look terrible, so you’ll have to be a little forgiving on that front. Once you allow yourself to get drawn in by the story, performances, and interesting production design, hopefully you can tune out the murky picture and sound. May the force be with you.


irving said...

I had never heard of Slipstream. Thanks for the heads-up. I WILL search this one out!

Jim Blanton said...

Absolutely! It's a really great, obscure title, which is amazing given the talent roster and high production values.

Anonymous said...

I saw this film largely because I liked Bill Paxton in Aliens. I didn't know much about it at the time but it's become one of my favorite sci fi films. Overall opinion seems to be very mixed (I suppose due to the pacing which can be a little slow at times) but it's imaginative, well-written , and the characterizations are great! Also, I agree with your opinion of Mark Hamill, he's actually a fine actor and while he's enjoyed some success, I've always wondered why he hasn't been more recognized over the years.