Sleeper (1973)

Posted: November 6, 2014 in Movie Review
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Sleeper (1973)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

First impressions are all about the visuals. You see someone whom you’ve never officially met before, but in your mind you’ve already formed an idea as to what kind of person they are based on their physical appearance. There’s a small chance you’ll be right, but 9/10 of the time you’ve missed the mark entirely. The same can be true of movies. I’ll never forget the first time I saw an image of Woody Allen, courtesy of a still photograph from the movie “Sleeper.” I was six years old at the time, and the photograph was in a sci-fi (and sci-fi/comedy) movie guide put together by Starlog Magazine. In the image, his character was bouncing around (although he could have been hovering for all I knew) in what appeared to be some sort of inflatable suit. I knew virtually nothing about the film itself, apart from the most threadbare of plot analyses. The reviewer called it “the funniest SF feature.” High praise. Being a big fan of other sci-fi comedies such as “Ghostbusters” or “Spaceballs,” I was expecting something along those lines. If I had any idea what kind of filmmaker Woody Allen is, I would have thought differently.

The year is 2173, and the society that was has been defeated and destroyed by war… and most probably a few miserable election cycles back when there was still such a thing. In its place is a pathetic excuse for a world where people jump into booths to “perform sex,” robot servants attend to your every whim, and everything that was said to be unhealthy for you is now found to be the opposite, and vice versa. Oh, and intellectuals and free-thinkers are reprogrammed to behave as the government (ruled by an overlord referred to only as the “Leader”) sees fit. This is the world that Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) is waking up to after spending 200 years in suspended animation.

Before Miles has had enough time to really process the fact that the world he remembers is ancient history, he’s being hunted by the government, who put an alert out to anyone who comes in contact with him to report “the alien” (as he is referred) immediately. Disguising himself as a robot servant, Miles ends up at the home of a socialite named Luna (Diane Keaton). When Miles first meets Luna, she’s a very naive, not especially bright young woman who writes bad poetry. She’s also the sort you have to learn to hold your tongue around because you’re bound to notice something she’s said that warrants correction, and she hates being wrong!

Eventually, Miles is forced to reveal himself to Luna, who alerts the authorities the first chance she gets. Miles has to come to her rescue when the agents determine that she, too, must be “corrected” for simply having been in close proximity to “the alien.” Returning to the house where he was first unfrozen, albeit unintentionally, they are caught and Miles buys time for Luna to escape. This is where their roles become reversed, as Miles is brainwashed so that he’ll behave as a cooperative, complacent member of society, whereas Luna becomes a member of the rebellion. When the two are later reunited, they discover that the Leader had been killed ten months prior, and that a plan is moving forward to clone him using the only piece of him left intact: his nose. This makes their mission clear: steal the nose, dispose of it, and be rid of the Leader once and for all. The hard part, assuming they succeed, is deciding what comes next.

As with his earlier slapstick comedies, Woody Allen taps into the early days of cinema for inspiration. It can be said that “Bananas” owed a bit to the Marx Brothers, just as it is also true that “Sleeper” could not exist without the films of Buster Keaton. The best example of this is in Allen’s scenes where he’s posing as the robot slave. These scenes work because all of the comedy is in his facial expressions. You want another example? How about the scene where, while he and Luna are on the run and in need of food, Miles finds a field full of giant-sized fruits and vegetables. Here, you see Miles and one other person literally slipping on a banana peel. The jazz score for “Sleeper” also sounds like it belongs as the accompaniment to a film from the silent era.

Diane Keaton, whose work outside of the “Godfather” saga and her collaborations with Woody Allen I have a hard time getting excited over, displays great range with her part in “Sleeper.” Apart from the tremendous growth her character undergoes in a movie that last for less than 90 minutes, Keaton (no relation whatsoever to Buster) is also the best thing about my favorite scene in “Sleeper.” The brainwashing Miles undergoes proves tough to crack. Resisting the persuasion to return to normal, he slips into the role of Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” This gives Diane Keaton a chance to imitate her “Godfather” co-star, Marlon Brando, when Luna plays along by assuming the role of Stanley Kowalski. She has Brando’s facial expressions so close to perfect that it’s the biggest laugh-out-loud moment of the entire picture. It’s something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but it is absolutely marvelous.

“Sleeper” is not what I consider to be the funniest sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it Woody Allen’s best, but it is still among my favorites of his. The thin plotline means that this movie survives based on the combined talent of its lead actors and the laughs they are able to produce through their interaction, as well as a few well-timed sight gags. I remember being underwhelmed the first time I saw it, only to reverse my opinion on subsequent viewings. So, don’t be surprised if “Sleeper” doesn’t make the best of first impressions. If you find that it’s not your cup of tea, I would not advocate that you have your mind changed for you. It’s no skin off my nose.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Snappy last line, there, Chuck! Your analysis is the same as mine, although much more eloquently expressed than mine would be. I, too, was more impressed with each subsequent viewing of this film.

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