I'm always intrigued by films that have troubled production histories, or that have failed at the box office. Slipstream is a prime example and is also a very hard movie to define; a real cinematic oddity. Superficially it is a fusion of "Post Apocalypse" and "Buddy" genres. It has a distinguished pedigree, boasting a cast of quality character actors, an experimental director, excellent locations and a solid UK production crew. It also sports a superb score by the great Elmer Bernstein, considered in some circles to be one of his finest. Yet the overall movie is messy, disjointed, poorly edited and somewhat ponderous in its intellectual aspirations. However despite all these criticisms, it has a curious quality that holds the attention.
In the future the earth has been ravaged by a series of natural disasters. Earthquakes have altered the continents throwing nations together. The surface is swept by super wind-storms, forcing people to travel the Slipstream in the canyons and ravines of the earth crust. Bounty hunter Will Tasker (Mark Hamill) is searching for Byron (Bob Peck), a mysterious figure who is wanted for murder. Despite capturing him, he soon loses his prisoner to Matt Owens (Bill Paxton), an enterprising "trader" who takes Byron in hope of collecting a reward himself. During their travels Owens and Byron become incongruous friends, while being doggedly pursued by Tasker. It’s not before Owens starts to wonder about his friends strange abilities and whether there’s more to the criminal charges against him than first meets the eye?
On paper it all sounds quite good but rather than approaching the material as an action/sci-fi film, director Steven Lisberger (of Tron fame) seems hell-bent on making a "message" picture. There are intermittent pauses in the story to ponder metaphysics. Performances overall are very good. Bob Peck is superb, being enigmatic, vulnerable and just a little bit dangerous. Hamill, a truly underrated actor, is very convincing as the hard-nosed, old school bounty hunter. The aerial photography is also very creative and makes good use of multiple European locations. This was clearly a production that made the most of its budget. The effects work is very much of its time relying on physical stunts and optical processing. This aspect of the movie is never allowed to overwhelm the narrative which is very much the focus of the one hundred and two minute running time.
Yet Slipstream smacks of a film that has gone through multiple edits. There are several scenes that end abruptly or shy away from what has been telegraphed. For example, Hamill confronts a group of smugglers. Guns are drawn and then instead of a dramatic shootout, we cut to close shot of a shotgun muzzle being fired rapidly. Next thing we see are the dead victims being buried. Yet strangely, during the films climax, we see one of the lead characters shot and blown backward through a glass cabinet in slow motion. Minor characters enter the story and then are never seen again. The titular Slipstream itself seems to diminish in importance as the film progresses. I just get the impression that there's another twenty minutes of footage somewhere, that if reinstated would have drastically improved the proceedings.
Several of the sub-plots the run throughout Slipstream, seem strangely dated focusing upon philosophical questions pertaining to the end of society. Director Steven Lisberger seems enamoured with seventies counter culture. Tonally I was strongly reminded of such films as Zardoz and A Boy and His Dog. One of the most thought provoking aspects of the film is the old chestnut about how androids are external manifestations of human vanity. Byron an android, who was built as a companion, appears to have murdered his master. When questioned, Owens assumes that "he had it coming". Peck confirms this but the delivery of the lines implies a deeper meaning. A mercy killing perhaps, of someone who was terminally ill? It’s an aspect of the plot that would’ve benefited further exploration.
If you are a connoisseur of the unusual and have patience as well as an open mind, Slipstream is worth a look. It is definitely a failed opportunity but still has many aspects to engage the mind. Sadly a Director’s Cut seems highly unlikely, as producer Gary Kurtz stated recently that much of the missing footage was incomplete or dropped from the script before being shot. There simply isn’t the material to restore to the film. He also implied that the original story was a lot darker in tone and far more violent. Sadly, due to the financial failure of Slipstream the film is now in the public domain and therefore many of the copies available are sourced from poor quality prints, shown in the wrong aspect ratio. Therefore choose wisely how and where you decide to watch this cinematic curiosity.