"Slaughterhouse-Five" begins with a man, Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), typing on a sheet of paper that he has become "unstuck in time." He's caught in a time warp causing him to shift back and forth without warning to different points in his life. This premise sounds a lot more interesting than what the movie delivers. Is he calling out for help? We can't tell. The movie never lets us in on Pilgrim's reaction to what's happening. We don't know if he's upset, scared, perplexed, happy, bemused, or anything. We are simply shown various points in life, connected in odd ways. One moment he's a POW in World War II, threatened by German soldiers who are about to shoot him; the next he's at his wedding and people are "shooting" him with a camera.
The problem is, this looks more like a narrative device (and not a particularly original one, at that) than evidence of time travel. It's more like a story told out of order than a story about a man caught in a time warp. Sure, something weird is going on whenever he appears to "remember" the future, like when his younger self starts addressing his future wife, and a fellow soldier standing there thinks Pilgrim is propositioning him. But the film has relatively few such moments, and we can't help thinking that what we're seeing is simply the perspective of an older man experiencing flashbacks, a distinct possibility considering that we later learn that the older Pilgrim had a nervous breakdown.
I tend to enjoy movies with fractured story-lines of this sort, because the task is not merely to see events unfold, but to piece together what has already happened. Unfortunately, this movie lacks a narrative focus. Pilgrim seems a very ordinary fellow, and the movie never explains what makes his life story worth telling. Nothing about him is particularly attractive, or particularly repulsive, either. He's just bland. We see him as a POW, where one soldier has an inexplicably passionate grudge against him, while another befriends him. There will be some tragedy, some bombings, and some killings along the way. By flipping forwards and backwards in time the movie struggles to make all this engaging, because it all comes off rather tame for a war movie. An account of the bombing of Dresden is filmed with surprisingly little emotional power. There's a lack of thematic focus in these scenes; they seem to be there only to provide biographical information about this character, without actually contributing to the movie's larger purpose.
The later scenes are all over the map. There is even a Hollywood-style car wreckage sequence that probably cost more to film than anything else in the movie, including the scenes on Planet Tralfamadore. This bit of broad comedy feels out of place in the mostly contemplative story and brings the movie to a grinding halt.
The movie's message--that time is static, that everything which happens is inevitable, and that one's task in life should be to cherish the good moments rather than try to control what happens--is provocative enough. But the film lacks the grace and elegance that allowed Vonnegut's book to bring this message alive. Take, for example, the book's description of an attractive woman as a "sensational invitation to make babies." The book abounds with playful, wry prose of this sort that reinforces Vonnegut's mechanistic outlook on life. The story at its core is a philosophical argument, but Vonnegut prevents it from becoming dry and academic, which I cannot quite say about the film.
In the book, the time-tripping never feels like a mere narrative device; it feels like it's really happening. Even though there's still a distinct possibility that the experience is occurring only in Pilgrim's mind, it at least comes off as an actual experience. Pilgrim, in the book, is oddly calm and resigned to what's occurring, but not emotionless. He cries at one point. He's anxious about the situation. He's unsure about how to define himself. In the movie, we get none of the sense of Pilgrim struggling to adapt to the situation, of being forced to grow as a result.
I found, when reading the book, that the disparate sections of the story connected a lot better. The war scenes were there not only because they allowed Vonnegut to insert semi-autobiographical material into the novel, but because they tied into the story's questions about human existence, dwelling as they did on the moral dilemma underlying the bombing of Dresden. Being caught in an eternal time warp, Pilgrim doesn't fear death. But he doesn't really value life either. He shows no love for his rich wife, described in the book as fat and plain (though played in the movie by an actress who was neither of those things, but who still utters the lines about thinking nobody would marry her and promising her husband she'd go on a diet). He shows no love for anyone, indeed, even himself. So we're left to ponder whether his liberation from the human time scale is really desirable.
The movie, unfortunately, can't seem to portray his apathy without also making us feel apathetic. When I watched the movie, I was repeatedly tempted to turn it off in the middle, because I simply didn't find the story engaging. The book, on the other hand, I could not put down. I suppose the difference with the book, besides its witty prose, is that I found myself able to show concern even for a character who had lost sight of that very concept. Vonnegut understood, better than the movie did, that the glimpse we get of life on a cosmic scale does not take away our essential humanity.
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