CAPSULE: SLIPSTREAM (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Steven M. Lisberger

FEATURING: , Bob Peck, , Kitty Aldridge, Eleanor David

PLOT: In a future devastated by a geophysical catastrophe, a two-bit hood steals a bounty hunter’s prey in hopes of a big score.

Still from Slipstream (1989)

COMMENTS: There is an alternate universe wherein three of the biggest names in the cult of science fiction—Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, TRON writer-director Steve Lisberger, and the legendary Mark Hamill himself—all found a renewed life in the cinema thanks to an out-of-nowhere box office smash about a future world where a steady round-the-world wind has upended human existence.

Yeah. Back in our universe, that movie was a flop that barely saw the light of day. Kurtz was bankrupted, Lisberger would never direct another feature, and Hamill would retreat into the world of voice work, rebuilding his reputation over the next three decades. The film itself (reportedly) slipped into the public domain, which does at least make it easier for us all to summon up a screening and see if we can figure out where all this potential went so wrong.

The story seems like a good place to start. The post-apocalypse summoned up by Tony Kayden’s screenplay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Whatever disaster the shifting winds wreaked upon the planet left some people huddled in dusty hovels, to be sure. But why would planes thrive while cars (and even carts) have vanished? How are there diners? Compact discs? Keypad locks? Why is Bob Peck on the run in a suit that makes him look like a London stockbroker? Is it really a career option in the detritus of a wind-related apocalypse to dream of hanging up a shingle for your own hot air balloon agency? And that’s long before our heroes take an odd turn into a bunker/library/country club that just… is.

The casting doesn’t help, either. Mark Hamill—God love him—just isn’t made to play grizzled and hard-bitten, and his tough-guy dialogue sits uncomfortably in his mouth. Bill Paxton, sporting a Robert Plant hairdo, tries to portray a desperate mercenary while still exuding his signature goofy affability. (In fact, a whole lot of people in this movie are trying to do their best Han Solo impersonations and coming up short.) And then there are the cameos. Slipstream manages to land two of the decade’s Best Actor Academy Award winners—Ben Kingsley and F. Murray Abraham—and then fails to do anything with them in their allotted 3 minutes of screen time.

What’s most frustrating about Slipstream is that there is so much talent in service of a story that literally goes nowhere. (Lisberger is quoted as saying the film is essentially a road movie with planes, but the only destination is indeterminate and quickly jettisoned, so we’re just really wandering from cave to cave.) The film’s English and Turkish locations are suitably alien and intriguing, and they are captured with some lovely aerial cinematography. There’s Hamill’s genuinely cool-looking plane. And every now and then, the story stumbles across an idea—some people now worship the wind as a deity—or an image—a man strapped into a kite buffeted by terrifying gusts—that hints at something grander. But it never gets there. Instead, the few stakes there are feel listless and empty. And you can tell the filmmakers know it, because they’ve made the great Elmer Bernstein work overtime to provide some juice in the score that can’t be found on the screen. (When not trying to generate suspense, it pieces together elements borrowed from other Bernstein scores, from The Magnificent Seven to Heavy Metal to Ghostbusters.)

Time and again, we get a tantalizing glimpse of the inventive movie they thought they had. It’s like being invited on a treasure hunt, and your host shows you the cool map he found and the shiny doubloon that proves the treasure is real, and so you search and search, only to come up empty. That’s Slipstream. No treasure. Only hot air.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It never quite gels into a complete whole, but also never lacks for ambition…  There’s a lot of weird aerial imagery that’s much appreciated if too oft repeated… There’s a cheesy core to this film that shoots for awe and wonder more than action and doom.”–Ed Travis, Cinapse (DVD)

One thought on “CAPSULE: SLIPSTREAM (1989)”

  1. Wow! Never heard of this one in my life, and you’re right, it’s a mind-blowing failure with that much talent on the line. Just watched the trailer and even that falls flat:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GX6r9zXVOk8

    There’s something about the dialog and the way this is handled. Kinda like Waterworld but a different element. I guess we need a fire world and an earth… apocalyptic… world? Then our Avatar set will be complete.

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