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March, 2007 : Essay:

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

The old joke is attributed to various sources. The actor is on his deathbed, and he's asked if dying is hard.

"Dying is easy," comes the reply. "Comedy is hard."

When it comes to science-fiction, comedy is doubly hard. There are authors who do it well, like William Tenn, Rudy Rucker and the late Robert Sheckley. There are TV shows that pull it off, like Red Dwarf or the famous The Trouble with Tribbles episode of the original Star Trek. On the big screen, though, it's few and far between.

The best SF comedies are usually spoofs, like Mel Brooks' Spaceballs or the affectionate send-up of Star Trek and fandom that is Galaxy Quest. Sometimes you'll get movies pitched to kids or teens that appeal to adults as well, like Lilo & Stitch or Back to the Future. There are also dark satires containing sufficient SF tropes that we claim them for our own, like Dr. Strangelove or The Truman Show.

One of the best SF comedies ever made, however, is dismissed by its director as one of his slighter efforts, which only goes to show that the author of a work is often not the best judge of its value. Woody Allen's Sleeper is the work of an outsider dabbling in a genre not his own and to which — fantasy elements in a few of his later films notwithstanding — he has never returned. Give him credit for respecting the genre enough to get it right. When he and co-writer Marshall Brickman finished their script, he sent it to no less a personage than Isaac Asimov to get his reaction. Allen wanted to get both the science and the science fiction right. He knew little of the genre and didn't want to do something that was novel for him but old hat to people well-versed in the field. Asimov was a fan of the filmmaker and told Allen not to change a thing. When Allen asked Asimov to be official consultant on the project, which would be shot in Colorado, Asimov declined as it would have involved too much travel. Instead he recommended his friend and fellow author Ben Bova, who did advise on the film.

When it was released in 1973 it was a hit. Artistically it was probably the most successful of his pre-Annie Hall movies, after which Allen shifted gears away from gag-filled comedies to more dialogue-driven romances. Along with the more recent Men in Black movies, it remains the rare example of a wholly original SF comedy that is intended for grown up audiences.

The story involves Miles Monroe (Allen), who runs a health food store in Greenwich Village in 1973 who goes into the hospital for a routine procedure. Complications develop and he is put into suspended animation. When he awakes, it is 2173, there's a world dictatorship, and the "Underground" has brought him back because he is unique in that he has no records within the police state. The film follows his misadventures in the future, which includes having to disguise himself as a robot, get reprogrammed by the authorities when he is caught, and finally plot the assassination of the leader who, at present, is just a nose awaiting cloning.

Watching Sleeper today is like taking a time machine into the past, rather than the future. For younger viewers, some of the topical jokes may not make any sense. Fortunately, Google is your friend. Take the most celebrated line in the film, when scientists explain that they've lost most records of the past after a war which was started "when a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear device." When I saw this film first run in a Manhattan movie house in 1973 you couldn't hear the next several lines because the audience was laughing so loud. Today's viewers may wonder who Albert Shanker was, and they wouldn't be alone. The actor who said the line didn't know either, and Allen told him not to worry about it. Shanker was, at the time, the combative head of the New York City teacher's union.

That's the problem with topical humor. Time marches on and what was once current now needs footnotes. Hopefully viewers will recognize that Bela Lugosi, whom Miles identifies as a former mayor of New York, was in fact the actor who played Dracula, and that French leader Charles DeGaulle wasn't a famous French chef. If you don't know who the acerbic sports commentator Howard Cosell was, you should still be able to figure out by context that the scientist's theory that citizens who were caught in criminal acts "were forced to watch this" wasn't actually the case. Perhaps the most obscure reference is a simple sight gag: Miles comes out of a McDonald's which boasts "100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 served." This may not seem very funny given that the signs currently read "Billions and billons served," but they used to contain a frequently updated count of burgers sold, and Allen merely took it to the absurdly logical extreme.

His technology gags are less of a problem. Here he plays with the expected SF props: artificially enhanced food, robots, ray guns. There are no space monsters, but Luna (Diane Keaton) — the bubble headed "poet" who ends up his hostage - refers to him as "the alien." There's also a pudding with a mind of its own (and which Miles has to fend off with a broom), gigantic fruit (which, naturally, leads him to slip on a gigantic banana peel), and the mind-altering "orb" (which gets him high as, disguised as a robot, he passes it from guest to guest at a party). Perhaps the best joke is the "Orgasmatron," which is how people in the future apparently have sex, since all the men are impotent and all the women are frigid. They step into the tiny chamber together, the door closes, and in short order both achieve orgasm. Eventually Miles has to hide in one by himself to try and escape the police, emerging as a drooling basket case.

Sleeper is a reflection of its times disguised as a look into the future, often the case in science fiction. We see this when Miles and Luna stumble onto the home of the sort of stereotypical gay characters — complete with a mincing, lisping, effeminate robot named Reagan — that ought to strike us as offensive today. We also see it when one of the scientists offers Miles a cigarette and urges him to draw the smoke deep into his lungs. It turns out everything we think is bad for us — like tobacco, sugar, and fatty foods — science has proven are the most healthful things we can consume. Then there are the jokes about the increasingly impersonal and automated society of the future. He goes to confession, and the computerized device simultaneously absolves him and offers up a kewpie doll. There's also Rags, the robotic talking dog he is issued as a companion. Miles asks if it's housebroken or will be leaving little batteries around the house. These are things that make us laugh, but it is a laugh of recognition as these seemingly far-fetched gags reflect all too present anxieties.

The payoff for the story is when Miles and Luna, now operating in the Underground, go in to assassinate the Leader's nose before the dictator can be cloned and reborn. Here is the subtlest commentary of all in this broad, slapstick comedy. Instead of the utopian ideal of progress, this technological Eden is, in fact, a repressive society, and the outlook for liberation is bleak. Miles succeeds in destroying the nose (under a conveniently placed steamroller), but he tells Luna it will make no difference if Underground leader Erno (John Beck) assumes power. Power corrupts, and in a few years they'll be stealing Erno's nose.

Made in the era of Watergate and Vietnam, it is a bleak statement of the ability of government to solve problems, an attitude not all that alien to today's culture. Miles similarly dismisses science and religion as having answers and closes with another famous line, where he states he believes in only two things in life, "Sex and death — two things that come once in my life, but at least after death you're not nauseous."

All too often writers or filmmakers come to our science fiction playground and act as if they're slumming. What they're doing isn't really science fiction, they tell interviewers, it's about ideas and people. All this demonstrates is how clueless they are about science fiction. Allen was a visitor to the genre, but he showed it sufficient respect to get it right, and to get advice when he thought he needed it. The result is not only a favorite among Woody Allen fans, but a science fiction comedy that remains a model for future filmmakers.


Copyright © 2007, Daniel M. Kimmel. All Rights Reserved.

About Daniel M. Kimmel

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews can be found at rottentomatoes.com. He is local correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University, including a course on SF. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2004), received the Cable Center Book Award. He is also author of The Dream Team -- The Rise and Fall of DreamWorks: Lessons from the New Hollywood . His essay, "The Batman We Deserve," appears in Batman Unauthorized, an entry in the SmartPop series from BenBella Books. His latest book is I'll Have What She's Having -- Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.

COMMENTS!

Mar 12, 19:54 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Sleeper or Dan Kimmel's retrospective.

The article can be found here.
Mar 14, 17:58 by Ype Kingma
When you liked Sleeper, then you really should watch Morons from Outer Space. Made in 1985, it is not outdated at all. it is hilarious, funny, and has a lot to say about how we humans really would react to ET's coming to earth. Especially when they would be not of higher intelligience, but... well morons.
Mar 19, 12:54 by Matthew Rees
"All too often writers or filmmakers come to our science fiction playground and act as if they're slumming. What they're doing isn't really science fiction, they tell interviewers, it's about ideas and people. All this demonstrates is how clueless they are about science fiction."

Well-put. I've added this to my collection of quotable quotes.

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