USA, 1972, Sci-Fi/Drama
Director: George Roy Hill
Cast: Michael Sacks (Billy Pilgrim), Ron Leibman (Paul Lazzaro), Eugene Roche (Edgar Derby), Valerie Perrine (Montana Wildhack).
A difficult book to adapt.
Adapting a science fiction book to the cinema is not always an easy task. The concepts, technologies, and even the philosophical dilemmas that a good book of this genre can have are not easy to show on the screen. As an example of this complexity, Slaughterhouse-Five contains in its story, time travel, aliens, and also explores the human condition and the scars that mark a personality. Director George Roy Hill manages, in a very practical way, to take this extremely difficult story to the cinema successfully. Slaughterhouse-Five even won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival in 1972.
Stuck in time.
“I have come unstuck in time. I Jump back and forth in my life and I have no control over where. » This is how we begin to discover the particular situation in which the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, finds himself. The story will take us through Billy’s life, from his childhood, his youth as a United States soldier in World War II imprisoned in Nazi Germany, to his adult life as a prominent married ophthalmologist with children, to their stay in a zoo of the Trafalmadores, an advanced race of aliens that lives in the 4th dimension, light-years away from Earth.
Slaughterhouse-Five is based on Kurt Vonnegut’s book of the same name, where the part dealing with the events in WWII is autobiographical. Vonnegut was in real life, a prisoner of war. While still a prisoner in Germany, he experienced firsthand the Allied bombing of Dresden, which was almost destroyed by it. This event to date causes conflict between historians since it is said that this city did not represent an important military target. The war was already on the final days in Europe and this attack was deemed unnecessary by many. There was a large number of civilian casualties and besides that, a great loss in the cultural aspect, since Dresden was considered one of the most beautiful cities in its architecture in all Europe.
Hill successfully manages to take us from one moment to another in Billy’s life in a fluid way, despite the abrupt jumps in time and situations. The scenes where we go from the darkest to the quietest moments in life Billy are handled by the sure hand of an experienced director. He takes good care of the parallels in these different stages. These scenes are very well thought out and aided by an excellent editing job, where the transitions maintain the harmony of the story. We can go from a young Billy climbing the dark stairs of a bomb shelter to a mature Billy also climbing stairs but from the peacefulness of his home with his pup in his arms. These parallels in the images and sounds give the story great fluidity despite the abrupt changes over time.
Film several highlights
Michael Sacks does very well in his role as Billy throughout his life stages, and Valeria Perrine is a delight as air-headed actress Montana Wildhack. Eugene Roche is a convincing father figure as Edgar Derby, although Ron Leibman, as the obnoxious Paul Lazzaro, is perhaps a little over-acted.
The Blu-Ray version looks extremely crisp and generally has good cinematography that makes the movie look very sharp even by today’s standards. Sound work is very important in the film, in many cases linking the scenes from one episode of Billy’s life to another, highlighting the irony of the different, but in a way, similar situations he experiences through his existence. Also, the musical score is always used perfectly to keep the tone of the story. A clever script does a good job when a greater explanation is deemed necessary for the development of the plot. Secondary characters deliver this information in dialogues that feel natural and not forced at all giving an organic feel to the narrative.
No risk and bad SFX
But the great problem that the film has, and more so for those who read the book, is how lightly delves into the Trafalmodres. These interesting 4th-dimensional beings simultaneously experience the entirety of time. They gave this ability to Billy. And for them, the events that they live are inevitable. Constantly in the book, the phrase «and so it goes» is mentioned but not once is it mentioned in the film. This sense that events in life are unalterable is little explored. Hill focuses more on a «straightforward» history, and for the most part, omits any philosophical angles than the book does have. Yes, Hill knows how to tell the story of the book very well in its most mundane aspects, but he does not dare to go deep on any other more complicated aspects of the book.
Also, the special effects are bad, even for 1972. Remember that it was made only a few years after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey. And five years before Star Wars. They just didn’t put much effort into that issue. Billy’s aging makeup is unconvincing. WWII clothing is adequate, but in very good condition and clean. That fails to convey the necessary realism.
A minor Sci-Fi classic
Hill adapts to the screen Billy’s story very well, masterfully handling abrupt jumps in time. A less talented director would present a confusing movie. The viewer follows the story well and at no time do we feel lost. But Hill is what we might call a classical director. He doesn’t take risks. A more experimental director could have led us to explore even deeper into the intricate questions that Vonnegut raises in his book.
A good adaptation that does, to some extent, honor the book. Good performances, with excellent directing and editing work. Suffers a bit from reluctance to take risks