Slipstream (1989)

Slipstream (1989)

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Next up are a handful of reviews that I’ve been putting off for some time now. For those who have frequented the blog for a while (and also have sharp memories), you might recall that 3 different movies, all called “Slipstream,” have popped up frequently in my bargain bin movie hunting. Now I am finally going to watch all three of them, and see how they actually stack up. First up is 1989’s “Slipstream,” starring Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton.

“Slipstream” was directed by one Steven Lisberger, who is best known for writing and directing the original “TRON” in 1982.  He doesn’t have a whole lot of credits to his name, but apparently he worked anonymously on screenplays throughout the 1990s and 2000s, primarily because the failure of “Slipstream” tanked his potential career as a director.

The “Slipstream” screenplay was written by Tony Kayden, a television writer who did a few made-for-TV movies as well as a handful of episodes of shows like “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.” If that doesn’t sound like the ideal fit for a science fiction epic, you are probably right to think that.

The cinematography for “Slipstream” was provided by Frank Tidy, whose credits have included such masterpieces as Sylvester Stallone’s “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!” and Steven Seagal’s “Under Seige.” However, he also worked as the director of photography on Ridley Scott’s first feature, 1977’s “The Duellists.”

The score for “Slipstream” (which is fantastic) was composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein, and recorded by the London Symphonic Orchestra. Bernstein was a film composer and conductor who racked up hundreds of movie credits beginning in the 1950s, all the way up until his death in 2004. His credits include fantastic films (“Bringing Out The Dead,” “My Left Foot,” “Ghostbusters”), cult classics (“Heavy Metal”), and some of the worst regarded movies in cinema history (“Leonard Part 6,” “Robot Monster”).

slipstream891The special effects team for “Slipstream” involved a significant team of workers who were carried over by producer Gary Kurtz from an earlier collaboration on “The Empire Strikes Back,” including Andrew Kelly (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Dune”), Phil Knowles (“Alien,” “Space Truckers”), Roger Nichols (“Batman Begins,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), John Packenham (“Krull”), Alan Poole (“Empire of the Sun,” “The NeverEnding Story”), Peter Skehan (“Gladiator,” “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade”), Ron Hone (“World War Z,” “Prometheus,” “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), and Neil Swan (“Alien,” “The Princess Bride”). Joining them were a couple of other special effects guys who have likewise gone on to significant careers: Steve Cullane (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Skyfall,” “Gravity,” “Hudson Hawk”) and Andrew Eio (“Mission: Impossible,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Event Horizon,” “Hackers”).

One of the most impressive aspects of “Slipstream” is the surprisingly deep cast, headlined by Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton, who both turn in memorable performances. The list also includes Ben Kingsley, Robbie Coltrane, F. Murray Abraham, and Bob Peck (in what might be his best role), who mostly mostly serve to fill out small roles throughout the film.

slipstream892One of the co-leads, Kitty Aldridge, has not had any acting credits since 1998, but has published a handful of novels throughout the 2000s since her acting career has ceased.

With such an impressively assembled, successful effects team and cast, you might be curious as to how “Slipstream” flew so far under the radar. Of course, there’s a reason for that. “Slipstream” only released in the UK and Australia (briefly), and the poor reception meant that it never got theatrical distribution in North America. It did wind up with a VHS release, and has since popped up on a ton of DVD compilations since falling into the public domain (which is how I came across it, of course).

The massive failure of “Slipstream” blew back particularly hard on Gary Kurtz, one of the film’s producers and arguably the driving force behind the film. Despite his earlier successes on influential and well-regarded films like “The Dark Crystal,” “American Graffiti,” and the first two “Star Wars” features, this failure basically sunk his career. He has only recently picked up producing again on a regular basis in the 2000s, and is still active at the age of 74.

The story of “Slipstream” follows a mysterious android (Bob Peck) as he is and pursued by both law enforcement (Mark Hamill) and a bounty hunter (Bill Paxton) in a weather-ravaged, post-apocalyptic world. The only means of travel in this world is by air on small, low-altitude planes, due to the catastrophic weather effects that ravage the landscape.

“Slipstream” was filmed throughout Europe, particularly in Turkey and Ireland, giving it a thoroughly impressive backdrop. Particularly, the extensive aerial shots over Ireland are absolutely gorgeous.

Reportedly, the original script for “Slipstream” was far more violent, but was cut significantly before filming. These cuts have been blamed partially for the movie’s general incoherence, though I personally feel that additional length is the last thing that this movie needed.

slipstream897As mentioned previously, “Slipstream” was very poorly regarded in the brief release it received at the time, primarily due to the meandering plot. Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at a 20% rating from both audiences and critics, though it comes from a fairly small sample size. IMDb has the movie at a somewhat higher 4.9, though that is still a long way from positive.

Most of the criticisms I have seen of “Slipstream” cite that it has very slow pacing, and that the plot meanders a bit too much. Some have complained about the effects being low quality, but that’s to be expected from a generally low-budget movie, regardless of the team behind it. Interestingly, it seems that the movie has been better received in retrospect, with people being somewhat fascinated by the casting and surprisingly good performances all around. I certainly agree that the movie is both longer and slower than it should be, but it does have a fair number of redeeming values.

First off, the performances in “Slipstream” are generally pretty good. Hamill manages to portray a chilling, strictly lawful antagonist, which provides a great foil for Bill Paxton’s laid-back, comic outlaw lead. Bob Peck mostly steals the show, however, with a great performance that captures the complexities of an advanced artificial being. His character slowly becomes more relate-able and human as the story goes on, which is pretty intriguing to watch Peck convey.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from the extended absence of Mark Hamill’s character, who vanishes for an excruciating stretch of the middle of the film. I’m curious as to why this was done, because it doesn’t seem like a script improvisation, but rather an intentional design of the story. It does allow for some development, but his absence also makes the film far less interesting to watch for a decent stretch of time.

Of all of the problems with the film, none are quite as glaring as the pacing. This is at least partially to blame on the previously mentioned script cuts before filming, but a certain degree of blame has to rest with the director and editor for not recognizing the issue and finding a way to mend it. This seems like the perfect sort of film to have a director’s cut, but, because the major cuts were made before filming, there isn’t any spare footage to make such a re-cut possible.

Though it is hard to regard this as a true flaw, there are a whole lot of borrowed elements throughout “Slipstream,” that stand out significantly. There are some obvious similarities to “Star Wars” given the number of common contributors, but some of the more obvious parallels are to “3:10 to Yuma” (the plot) and “North by Northwest,” specifically in the opening sequence which depicts a plane/foot chase. Personally, I think the mixture of them all creates something kind of unique and interesting to watch, though I don’t think some of the homages should have been so blatantly done.

slipstream895The finale of the movie features a bizarre fight inside the cockpit of a plane, which is honestly the most exciting part of the film. Unfortunately, it passes a bit too quickly, particularly in comparison to the bloated, slow sequences that clog up most of the film.

M8DSLIP EC004I’m a big fan of the world that is constructed in “Slipstream,” particularly the background details. At one point, there is a cult portrayed that worships the weather, and another portion that presents a secluded, opulent colony trying to maintain their lifestyle and culture despite the apocalyptic surroundings. It mostly happens in the background, but it is fascinating to see how people have come to deal with the world after society has crumbled.

Overall, I liked this film far better than I expected to. It isn’t a high-quality film, and there are plenty of issues with it, but it was still generally enjoyable to watch, especially if you go in not expecting anything. The acting and music is particularly impressive, and if you can bear through the slower parts, it is worth a watch in my opinion.

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