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Non-Review Review: Sleeper

Sleeper is an enjoyable Woody Allen film, coming from relatively early in the director’s career. He had yet to direct either Annie Hall or Manhattan, arguably his two most popular works, but was coming off a string of well-regarded movies. Sleeper is an affectionate look at many of the science-fiction movies that Hollywood was producing in the late sixties and early seventies, to the point that Allen himself actually sat down with Isaac Asimov to make sure the science-fiction elements of the script were kosher. However, Sleeper is remarkably fluid, allowing room within that framework for Allen to really explore any and all ideas that might possibly have occurred to him. The result is, to borrow a quote from the poster, a highly enjoyable and almost whimsical “nostalgic look at the future.”

Robot in disguise…

The plot of Sleeper is a composite of many of the favourite elements in the science-fiction of the time. There’s a stylish future, with beautiful rounded architecture. Allen reportedly wanted to film in Brasilia, but the budget forced him to compromise by shooting at American locations. There are storm troopers clad in black, brainwashing, robots, a dictator going by the name “Great Leader”, bubble cars, liberal sexuality and even a very seventies resistance movement. However, while adhering to the rough framework of that sort of movie, Allen doesn’t feel too confined.

Those worried that Woody Allen’s unique voice my get drowned out by this decidedly high concept have nothing to worry about. All the Allen trademarks are here. Allen essentially plays himself, a patient from the present unfrozen in the distant future. That doesn’t stop him from sleeping with incredibly beautiful women, ridiculing those around him and making all manner of pop culture references that are completely lost on those around him. Although, to be fair, his companion does acknowledge this after he makes a joke at the expense of New Jersey, observing, “Why is it I never understand what you’re saying?”

Foiled again!

Indeed, despite its futuristic setting, Allen seems to quite efficiently get across just how much he hates California. While he’s been more direct about it elsewhere, I found it interesting that even in a movie set in the distant future Allen was still making jabs at Hollywood. “What’s it feel like to be dead for 200 years?” Luna asks him at one point. Miles responds, “Like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills.” On discovering the totalitarian state that exists, he comments, “This is even worse than California.”

Allen is even playing the same central character that he always plays. Miles even concedes to being a clarinet player, much like Allen himself. He has that same strange quality of being quite unlikeable and yet strangely charming, as he passive-aggressively makes fun of those around him, reveling in the fact that they’re not aware of his mockery. “You think I’m stupid,” Luna remarks at one point, and though he vigorously denies it, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t, and is just cynically trying to lure her to bed with him. Despite this, Miles is an engaging lead character, perfectly encapsulating that wonderful dichotomy Allen tends to bring to his roles.

What’s Woody cooking up?

While the film’s visual design and plot might seem like homage to then-recent science-fiction like Logan’s Run or Rollerball or Fahrenheit 451, it’s quite clear that Allen also has a fondness for silent cinema. In fact, the director had toyed with the idea of using a similar plot to produce a silent film – setting the movie in a dystopian future where the government had outlawed talking. That’s a pretty cool and clever idea, even if it is quite different from the finished film.

Still one can detect the influence of silent cinema in Allen’s work here. In particular, the robots look like they might have come from Metropolis and the taping device looks almost like something from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. At times, the movie almost seems like a silent movie, with physical comedy set to a jazz or piano track. This is notable, for example, when Miles is actually told he’s in the future – entirely without dialogue. There are other sequences scattered throughout. A personal favourite sees the ominous “Federation Security” treated like Wile E. Coyote while trying to catch our lead. The might as well have bought that rocket launcher from Acme.

It seems like ancient history now…

Allen takes advantage of his science-fiction setting to make all manner of thinly-veiled social commentary. I especially like a gag about how many people McDonalds will have served by that time, as well as the observation that the company would survive a nuclear apocalypse. There’s some nice commentary on organised religion as well, with Miles giving an automated confession and receiving a “treat” afterwards. I especially like Miles’ commentary on Richard Nixon. “I know that whenever he used left the White House, the Secret Service used to count the silverware.”

On the other hand, not all the sight gags work. There’s a sequence with giant vegetables that falls a little flat, and a sequence involving a malfunctioning tape machine that feels a little clunky. And there are times when the humour seems a little bit too extended. There’s a “Miss America” gag that runs far too long. However, Allen retains his wit throughout and there’s always a nice zinger around the corner if you’re willing wait a few seconds.

Miles to go before he sleeps?

There’s also occasionally a moment that feels too willfully surreal, as if Allen is taking advantage of the fact that he’s making a science-fiction film to just run with whatever runs into his head. Occasionally this works, for reasons I can’t even make sense of – Diane Keaton doing a Marlon Brando impersonation is far more hilarious than it really should be, for example. Other times, like the dinner sequence directly before, it just feels a little odd for the sake of being odd.

Sleeper might lack focus a bit, but I can’t help but find its stream-of-consciousness approach to comedy remarkably engaging. It helps that, unlike in some of his work, Allen never seems completely bitter about his subject matter. It’s a relatively affectionate take on cheesy seventies science-fiction, rather than a brutal evisceration of a subgenre that is… well, ripe for it. If nothing else, it’s a refreshingly distinct Woody Allen film, one that manages to preserve his voice and tone despite a radical shift in setting.

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