Country: USA (1989)
Review by: Charlie Prince
Slipstream is an enigma. It’s directed by the same guy who did Tron – a fantastic and creative, if slightly dated, piece of science fiction. Given Tron’s popularity, you’d think it would have launched director Steven Lisberger’s career. But he didn’t come out with another movie until 5 years later, a comedy called Hot Pursuit with John Cusack, and after that he made only one more movie. That movie was Slipstream, a post-apocalyptic, science-fiction film. It was released in 1989, and had a remarkable cast – starring Mark Hamill, Bob Peck, Bill Paxton, the gorgeous Kitty Aldridge and even featured Ben Kingsley (!) and F. Murray Abraham in small roles. Yet it’s virtually a lost film. I was only able to secure a copy as part of a 3-on-1 dvd called “Great Sci-Fi Thrillers” ($6), and despite being a post-apocalyptic movie with a real cast, it’s not even mentioned in Kim Newman’s book Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema – the only book on the subject. How can such a recent, well-financed film, the first sci-fi movie by Lisberger since he made Tron, featuring a significant cast just fall off the face of the cinematic earth? And was it so bad that Lisberger was never allowed to make another movie? (since Slipstream he has only made a videogame of Tron 2.0).
If you read various comments on this film around the web, you’ll see reviews are highly polarized. Most of the comments are either along the lines of “I can’t believe how awful this movie is” or “It’s a vastly underrated film, you need to see it twice to see how great it is.” Although it’s pretty bad, I think it goes too far to say it’s among the worst ever. Although these days Mark Hamill is synonymous with disaster, he’s much better in this film than you’d expect. For one thing he doesn’t whine at all, which is a huge relief, and he comes across as fairly tough, which you have to see to believe, though he still has several badly delivered lines. Bill Paxton’s character, a Jon Bon Jovi-like hairband optimist, and the star of the film, is the most dated, though he plays the character consistently and perhaps convincingly. (Small spoilers ahead) Bob Peck plays an android, and does it reasonably well, in a prequel to Brent Spiner’s character Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Kitty Aldridge does an okay job, though some lines make you wince. Overall, though, the acting isn’t awful – the problem resides squarely with the plot.
The premise of this post-apocalyptic world is somehow related to the environment, although it’s not spelled out exactly. Something like the environment degraded, widespread earthquakes led to floods, and the floods led to an incredible wind tunnel, known as the titular “slipstream.” This is all hastily explained in the opening shot by a narrator who rambles on about how man fought against nature, and man lost, and earthquakes, and floods – you can almost hear the narrator saying “blah blah blah, and so anyway’s there’s this slipstream.” Best not to think too hard about the premise, methinks.
We open to a long shot of Hamill and Aldridge – who represent a Mad Max version of The Law – in a goofy-looking plane/glider chasing after a man (Bob Peck) running in a nice suit across some kind of desolate field. He’s wanted for murder and they’ve come a long way to get him. Hamill stops at a nearby rest stop, and is in what looks like a diner when he bumps into Bill Paxton, an energetic egomaniac who must have fallen off of Def Leppard’s tour bus sometime in the 80s. Paxton is a bottom-rung dealer in illicit arms, and when he overhears how large the bounty on Peck’s head is, he kidnaps the man at gunpoint from Hamill (”You sure you want to do this?” Hamill asks him seemingly unconcerned) and gets away in his own junkyard plane/glider, but not before Hamill has shot him with a poisonous dart. Hamill demands the prisoner back in exchange for the antidote, but Paxton ignores him, thinking it a bluff.
The plot oozes along for a while, with the sole purpose of establishing the characters. Other than being disrespectful of women, Paxton is essentially good at heart, and can’t understand why Peck is as square and boring as he is. Peck, an android, is neither alarmed about his capture, nor does he try to escape. He seems primarily interested in helping people around him. At one point, he restores vision to a blind child suffering from cataracts. At first Paxton is a bit afraid of Peck, but comes to consider him a friend over the course of their adventures.
Peck’s good nature leads them to danger, however, when he convinces Paxton to stop to help a small village of people who worship the wind. They have been savagely attacked, or so we’re told, as the issue of who did this or why is never addressed. The wind worshippers, distrustful of any technology, tie up the prisoners with strange disinterest in the fact that they’d tried to help. Mystically dumb statements along the lines of “the wind brought you here, if it likes, the wind will set you free” are given to justify the wind people’s decision to leave Peck tied to an apartment-sized kite, which is flung into a fierce sandstorm, and to hog-tie Paxton (how exactly would wind untie Paxton in his cave cell?). Ben Kingsley is the badly injured leader of these lunatics and appears to reconcile himself with the visitors (though it is ignored by his followers, it would seem), and everyone is primarily concerned with the idea that “we have led peaceful lives, why have we been rewarded thus?” (i.e. by the wind gods). That would probably be easier to answer if we knew who attacked them or why, but we don’t and in any case, when Hamill and Aldridge show up to reclaim their prisoner, all four escape to a nearby village, where they are separated once more.
Next stop is a secret walled-in society that is hidden from the world. They have everything – food, wine, books, art, famous artifacts. In short they have it made and jealously guard this secret, hiding themselves entirely to the world, where, for the most part, people are barely able to survive. Not much of this is plausible, of course, and no effort is made to explain how this community gets food without leaving the compound, or how they got all this stuff to begin with. But in any case, they need the android because in their decadence they have no technical know-how. Peck fixes their air conditioner in short order. While Paxton is off seducing the trashiest girl he can find, Peck falls in love with the woman who led them there – experiencing his first human emotions and even falling asleep and dreaming for the first time – and he’s ecstatic, determined to remain in the compound forever. (More spoilers ahead).
Hamill and Aldridge show up again (you see, the poison dart – which seems to be taking an awfully long time to work – was also a tracking beacon, so they can follow these guys anywhere). As per usual, Hamill kills a bunch of people trying to get to the android, including Peck’s new love. Demoralized, Peck follows Hamill outside, seemingly resigned to his capture, but angry enough to get revenge. Hamill senses this but isn’t able to take off in time, as Peck claws his way through the plane in mid-air, wrecking it’s controls, and killing Hamill. Strangely enough, Peck seems to change his mind after wrecking the plane, and tries to save Hamill (I think anyway, hard to tell), but it doesn’t work and they crash into a cliff.
Or Peck meant to crash into the cliff, who knows. In any case, Hamill’s done for as a result of this, and it’s just as well for Aldridge, who has fallen in love with Paxton in the meantime (she gives him the antidote to his poison). The movie ends with Paxton and Aldridge leaving together for an idyllic farm life somewhere, or something, and Peck’s off to find the place in his dreams, a mountain so high up that only robots can live there. Paxton is content to let the reward money slip through his fingers rather than betray his friend.
Strike you as a focused plot? Me either, but there you have it. The story revolves around the hunt for an android who committed murder, but almost no effort is made to explain what happened, or what first allowed the robot to defy his “thou shalt not kill” programming. A brief statement by Paxton that whoever was killed “had it coming” is confirmed by Peck, but that’s it.
A major opportunity was also missed with the wind people. Who attacked them and why? Will it make them lose their faith in the wind? They have a minor to non-existent purpose in the film and do not resurface. And there are other problems. Why does Hammill hate the robot so much? He never develops into a three dimensional character. He just hates Peck and is determined to kill him like Arnold in the first Terminator, and that’s pretty much all we know. Aldridge seems to think similarly of the robot, angrily saying that although Peck thinks he’s human, he’s really a monster. But by the end of the movie, she appears to have forgotten all about it, content to let the “monster” go free rather than bring him to justice. Also, a short look at Paxton’s home life goes nowhere. At one point we see that his family smuggles drugs, and when they defy Hamill they are all killed. How will Paxton react? He won’t. It never comes up again, and for all we know he’ll never even know they’re dead. Perhaps strangest of all, the “slipstream” seems to have little if any presence in the film. It doesn’t even seem like the winds are all that strong except in the one storm with the wind people. You’d think they’d put more effort into this “slipstream” idea seeing as they named the movie after it.
I could go on, but you get the point – the plot is deeply incoherent. Loose, go-nowhere plot developments are the rule rather than the exception. No wonder the movie has been forgotten as quickly as it has. But what’s a shame is that it was an interesting idea, and with a better script might really have been worthwhile (I’d like to take this opportunity to urge that there aren’t enough post-apocalyptic movies in the world). As I mentioned earlier, the acting in it isn’t all that bad (best Hamill performance I ever saw), and the bleak backdrops are effective. In that sense, it reminds me of Kevin Costner’s The Postman – great idea, but the script doesn’t work. I’m not sure it’s “so bad it’s good” so that it’d be a fun midnight movie with friends, but it is certainly intriguing, especially given the cast. And after this film (because of this film?) Steven Lisberger – the maker of Tron – has never made another. In my books, that’s a sobering thought. If anyone knows more about what happened to Lisberger after this or anything else about the Hollywood reaction to the film, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Charlie Prince
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: USA and DVD Reviews: USA and Contributors: Charlie and Rating: Poor ★